When Drew Storen blew up in the ninth inning of last year's National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals, I experienced the inning as a series of frantic phone calls.
My friend Lisa grew up with my wife, far more interested in theater and politics than baseball. But Stephen Strasburg's Nationals captured her, and by the NLDS, she'd become sufficiently rabid to race from bar to bar as the Cardinals scored four times off Storen, looking for a place to drink that would stop the rally, and calling at each new stop.
I reassured her then, as we sat in our bedroom watching the carnage on television, my wife amused at what had become of her friend (since the same thing happened to my wife with the 2006 Mets), and we tried to talk her down from the emotional ledge baseball can drive us to, the promise of 162 games undone by a single poor performance by one relief pitcher in one inning.
I pointed out how young nearly everybody on the Nationals was who really mattered. Bryce Harper was 19, Stephen Strasburg 24, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman both younger than 30, and more talent was on the way.
Then the Nationals went out and got better this winter, adding a true center fielder in Denard Span, another closer in Rafael Soriano. I told Lisa to start saving for playoff tickets.
But then there's been the irrefutable reality of this season. Somehow, I still believe the Nationals are an excellent team masquerading as a mediocre one. I say this, not as a Nationals fan, which I'm not, but as a baseball observer. This may be as silly as declaring the Orioles weren't any good last year, even as they won 93 games.
The Nationals themselves are gearing up for next season. I mean that in terms of actual gear, as I watched them place orders for their spring training gloves next season.
"I want the chocolate, no pad in the thumb, or anywhere," Craig Stammen told the man tasked with taking the orders. Others studied their options, less certain than Stammen about what worked.
It wasn't a pennant race clubhouse. Nor was it, incredibly, a pennant race manager, even though Davey Johnson knows there's no next year with the Nationals for him.
When I asked about whether Ross Ohlendorf or Tanner Roark would start for the rest of the season, Johnson made it clear his reasoning had to do with seeing how Roark can help in the future, rather than the pennant chase.
The Nationals have scored 589 runs. They've allowed 581 runs. That's as dead-even mediocre as a team's performance can get.
And still, months after I listened to Jayson Werth, back in April, take responsibility for losing a game against the Mets on an ill-advised 3-0 swing, or declare in July, "I think at any moment, this team could take off," they still hadn't. Give Lisa credit, she was no fair-weather fan. She's lived and died in equal measure with what has been a .500 team practically the whole year.
But it's worth noting that since August 1, they sort of have taken off. They were 16-11 in August, 9-2 so far in September, good for a 25-13 record, or that 105-win pace everybody predicted for them back in March, myself included, as Lisa reminds me. Even as they plot for next season, with Werth having a legitimately great season, Harper seemingly back from injury, even Zimmerman looking like the star he's long been, at the plate and in the field, and Desmond showing that his All-Star form from 2012 was no fluke, the Nationals crept back into the very edges of the wild card race, just five losses behind the Reds entering Thursday.
Driving home Wednesday night, I listened to the Mets-Nationals game. Vic Black, a rookie reliever, entered the game for the Mets. His task: find a way to get Harper, Desmond and Adam LaRoche. If not, Wilson Ramos and Anthony Rendon, another talent the Nationals had brought up for the first time in 2013, loomed.
Ultimately, Rendon crushed the two-run double that gave the Nationals some breathing room. The Nationals won again, moving seven games over .500. Before the inning even started, just hearing who was due up next, I called Lisa.
"You root for a very good team!" I exclaimed. "And I don't care how much evidence there is that says otherwise. I'm sure of it." I honestly don't remember a more legitimately talented team disappointing this much.
Even Johnson, who declared back in the spring of his team, "World Series or bust", has come to the conclusion that this team needed a better bench, which it clearly did, and another left reliever, which it now may have in Ian Krol, another addition from the Nationals' talent pipeline.
Still, when all a team needs is some bench production and a lefty out of the pen, just how far are they from going deep into the playoffs?
"We had some injuries," Johnson told reporters Wednesday. "We didn't have a lot of depth in pitching. I wouldn't have been as cocky coming out and saying we're going to dominate and win the World Series if all those things I knew weren't set in place. We had fallback positions."
Not me. I have no fallback position. I wouldn't change a word, and I'll be saying the same thing about the Nationals next year, when they're a good bet to make Lisa forget about theater all over again.