Capital Humblings For Bold Challengers

They spoke so often about postseason experience. Some averted their ears. After all, the inexperienced have overthrown the experienced every so often. But on Friday the very experienced St. Louis Cardinals and the very experienced New York Yankees gave their worthy, younger, upstart Beltway challengers enough experience in their five-game division series showdowns to bode well enough for the immediate and longer-range futures of each.

Right now, though, it stings for both the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles. And they're entitled to feel stung.

Unfortunately, the Yankees' humbling of an overeager club of young enough Orioles, on a night CC Sabathia actually might have been hittable against more experienced or at least less anxious hands, seemed almost a snooze, compared to the Cardinals' humbling of an equally overeager club of young Nationals who came close enough to bludgeoning them right into an earlier-than-desired winter.

The Orioles wanted it in the worst way possible yet couldn't pry more than a single digit out of the otherwise up and down Sabathia. The Nats wanted it even worse, and proved it against Adam Wainwright early enough and often enough. If anyone other than the Yankees might have wilted after the first dent, anyone other than the Cardinals might have wondered nothing but how much worse it could get before the Nats performed the victory dance and ran the champagne bath.

So the Cardinals lost one-man wrecking crew Albert Pujols, manager Tony La Russa, and pitching rabbi Dave Duncan, in favour of moving Allen Craig to first, hiring no-experience-known Mike Matheny, and mere Duncan disciple Derek Lilliquist? Big deal. They still hadn't forgotten to keep their shoulders shoving the doors back when it looked like the doors were about to finish slamming on them.

Perhaps the Nats hadn't paid all that much attention to Game 6 of last year's World Series, not to mention all the other elimination games these Cardinals have upended. If they didn't, the Cardinals were only too happy to conduct a makeup class at their expense, even if they had the Cardinals' tail feathers clipped 6-0 by the time the third inning ended.

Jayson Werth sat in the Nats' dugout when school let out, watching Nationals Park empty slowly of its broken hearts, looking for a few moments as if he couldn't decide whether to believe the lesson he'd just been taught. Just a couple of hours earlier, Werth himself had opened the carnage by ripping Wainwright's 1-1 curve ball down the right field line starting the bottom of the first, Bryce Harper tripled him home (to snap out of a 1-for-18/six K/one RBI division series funk), and Ryan Zimmerman homered Harper home.

And that was a mere day after Werth lit up the capital with his epic 13-pitch, bottom of the ninth, leadoff game-winning rip into the St. Louis bullpen to get the Nats here in the first place.

As Werth stared almost hypnotically to the emptying park from behind his soft, thick beard, an angry Nats fan bellowed audibly as a television camera continued shifting in front of the dugout. "Get ridda Storen!!! Y'never shudda had Storen!!!"

Drew Storen, the Nats' bold young closer, pitching for a third straight day. Surgery in April, back with the Nats in July, reclaiming his closing role in September. Shook Carlos Beltran's leadoff double off in the top of the ninth, after the Nats snuck home a should-have-been insurance run in their half of the eighth. Got Matt Holliday to bounce one to third, where barking-shouldered Ryan Zimmerman threw him out on an eephus across the infield. Really had Nationals Park's crowd making a racket when he fooled Craig into a swinging strikeout on a slider diving in a twist away from the low outside corner. Looked like he'd fight Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina off, after he didn't get the call on the edge of the outside corner. Foul back, low and away, Cardinals down to their final strike.

Ruh-roh. Low off the corner, first and third. And guess who's coming to dinner? Only David Freese, last year's League Championship Series and World Series MVPs, a man who proved then that he doesn't know the meaning of the last strike. Freese, who'd battered a last-strike Neftali Felix service off the right field wall past Nelson Cruz's reach to tie last year's Game 6. Freese, who'd thank his mates for re-tying that game on another last-strike uprising in the 10th by hitting the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th over the center field fence.

Friday night, though, Freese didn't have to go that far. All he had to do was wring Storen for a full-count walk, loading the pads for Cardinals second baseman Daniel Descalso. What the hey, these kind of Cardinals can afford to let lesser-likely men have their fun. Especially those who yank them to within a run of the Nats in the first place with leadoff launches into the right field bullpen, which is exactly what Descalso did in the top of the eighth. You think these guys are going to be fazed by coming down to five last-strike pitches in all?

All Descalso had to do now was hit a bullet somewhat up the middle, for which Nats shortstop Ian Desmond dove, looked like he'd get his glove on it, but lost it as the ball glanced off his web, allowing Beltran and Molina home with the re-tying runs. And all often-expressionless rookie Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma had to do from there was line a two-run single right behind his keystone partner.

That's not even close to what the Nats expected to deal with when Werth and Bryce Harper introduced them to the scoreboard in the bottom of the first, and Zimmerman followed at once with a blast two rows into the right field bleachers. Or, when Harper opened the bottom of the third hitting one about four rows further back in the same section, Zimmerman followed with a measly double off the right field wall, and, one out later, Michael Morse hit the first pitch he saw and the last Wainwright would throw on the night into the left field bullpen.

"I said to the infield, 'Pick me up'," Wainwright told a reporter after the game. "It's my bad out there, pick me up."

But they probably also didn't expect Gio Gonzalez, their 20-game winning Game 5 starter, to pitch as though he were trying to get 27 outs per pitch, overthrowing so often it may have been a matter of time before the Cardinals found ways to exploit it. "One of the tough pitchers in baseball, with a tough bullpen behind him," Wainwright himself would describe Gonzalez and the Nats' pitching staff afterward.

On the other hand, they might have thought they were being gifted by Nats manager Davey Johnson, when Johnson couldn't bring himself to lift an obviously shaky Gonzalez after he was pried for the first Cardinal run by Beltran (leadoff walk) and Holliday (RBI double into the left field corner).

Not so, though, when they proceeded to load the pads on Gonzalez with nobody out, after pinch hitter Shane Robinson turned a first pitch called strike into a four-more-pitch walk, sending Beltran home when the low curve bounced off Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki's chest protector, then shook off Kozma being thrown out at home with Craig wringing out the bases-loaded walk to send home the third Cardinal run.

And they probably didn't think it was all that much a matter of fate that they couldn't pry anything out of Nat relievers Craig Stammen and Sean Burnett in the sixth but could pry one out of Edwin Jackson, normally a starter, in the seventh, when Beltran doubled Jon Jay (leadoff walk) to third and Holliday snuck Jay home while grounding out wide of shortstop.

Jackson might have squirmed out of that with just a run on his jacket, and Tyler Clippard — one of the Nats' strikeout force late in Game Four, one of three Nat relievers who nailed eight straight outs by strikeout — may have survived Descalso's leadoff bomb in the eighth. But the Nats had reason enough to believe two bottom of the eighth-opening base hits, a forceout setting first and third, and Suzuki's two-out, line single up the middle, sending home Adam LaRoche (the leadoff single), equaled gilt-edged insurance.

Gilt you! the Cardinals probably thought, though they're far too polite to phrase it in terms like that. Up stepped Kozma, the almost expressionless rookie. He looked at a pair of called strikes, a ball high and away, and a ball low. Then, he lined a two-run single, the Cardinals had runs number eight and nine, and the Nats — who thought they'd gotten insurance on Cardinal closer Jason Motte's dime — got another whack at Motte.

All they could whack now was Werth's leadoff pop to shallow right. Harper stood in at the plate looking for all the world like he wanted to hit a solo grand slam on the first pitch he could handle now, and got himself a three-pitch pounding swishout for his anxiety. And Zimmerman, who likewise looked like he had murder in his heart and a solo salami in his brain, fouled off a pair of two-strike services before swinging for the Atlantic Ocean and getting just a pop out Descalso took happily enough on the rim of the outfield grass.

"We knew we had a lot of game left after they scored six," Descalso said when it was over. "Nobody went up there trying to hit a six-run homer. We needed to scratch and claw and get ourselves back in the game."

That's another powerful lesson these young, gifted Nats should be learning at once. Hadn't the Cardinals still left seven men on from the fourth through the seventh? Hadn't they entered the eighth 3-for-5 with men in scoring position? Alas, hadn't they pitched like they were trying to pound out every hitter in their ballpark and all other ballparks in the region and swung the bats like they were, indeed, trying for 6-run homers no matter how many bases were occupied?

That wasn't the staff that pitched so stoutly down the stretch after You Know Who's pre-planned shutdown. And don't make the mistake of assuming it might have been different if You Know Who had been able to pitch. I don't know that it might. And you don't know, either.

(Lesson number whatever: The Yankees benched Alex Rodriguez Friday night, because his slump mandated it — and won. The Nats had to shut You Know Who down, for his and their health to be, and had more than enough to go otherwise Friday — and helped beat themselves when they didn't have to.)

The Yankees already took away any shot at an all-Beltway World Series in the earlier evening. Like the Nats would do, the likewise young, hungering, anxious Orioles — who'd launched themselves into a surprising dogfight for the AL East and battered the Texas Rangers out of the wild card came — too often got eager enough that they couldn't hit a should-have-been hittable Sabathia with a vault door.

The best the Orioles got was Nate McLouth hitting a parabola down the right field line in the top of the sixth, which might have tied the game at one, except that the ball flew a hair's breadth past the wrong side of the foul pole. A Yankee Stadium usher reportedly told a TBS television reporter the ball grazed the pole, which would have meant home run, but no one could hear it in the middle of the stadium racket.

Nobody doubted Curtis Granderson, though, when the slender Yankee center fielder squared up Baltimore reliever Troy Patton with one out in the seventh and hit one into the right field seats.

Actually, McLouth's nearest of near misses was the second best the Orioles got. The best they got was a season in which they made Camden Yards a place to be proud of for more than just its splendid design, ambience, and amiability. You could actually go there now and enjoy the game on the field as well as the field and the park itself, for the first time in fifteen years and perhaps beyond.

You can do so at Nationals Park, too. And when you go to either or both parks next year, here's hoping you see a pair of teams right back in the thick of the races, approaching the stretch and the postseason each, if they're stout enough for return engagements, without falling into the overeagerness that cost them this time around.

They proved to the Yankees and the Cardinals that they were solid teams. They proved it to everyone else, too, except maybe one bellowing, disgruntled Nats fan behind and above Jayson Werth's head.

Now they have to prove they know all the elements of solidity. Including the right kind of patience and the right kind of hunger. They learned the hard way Friday night. With two managers as stable as Johnson and the Orioles' Buck Showalter normally are, don't bet too heavily against them.

"You have a bunch of young kids over there that just play the game the right way and play hard," said Yankee manager Joe Girardi about the Orioles his team had just pushed aside. "And you think about it, we played 23 games [against each other], and there were 4 runs that separated us. It's an accomplishment for both clubs because they never went away. People thought they were going to go away, they never went away."

Both clubs, but the Nats in particular, also learned how easy it is for baseball to take them between extremes, as often as not in the same game, as often as not in less than gentle journeys. If they can come back from this, they can come back from anything. They'll both have all of 2013 to prove it.

"They played good baseball," Beltran said graciously of the Nats afterward. "They really fought to win this one."

It's taken the Orioles a mere 15 years and three presidencies to return to postseason baseball, and the number one show on television 15 years ago was Seinfeld. The last time a Washington team played October baseball, television was radio, and the number one show in the country was The Eddie Cantor Show. It took Washington seventy-seven years and twelve presidencies to follow to return to the postseason.

It may take the Nats and the Orioles just one more year, and maybe (underline that, ladies and gentlemen) another presidency, to get back to the postseason. When you say it that way the sting eases a little bit. For now, it just plain stings for both. No matter how much there is for both to be proud of.

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