Pain, Not Champagne, For the Nats

This was the kind of situation the Nats always want, Stephen Strasburg striking out 13 Phillies, and Bryce Harper smashing a game-winning double in the bottom of the 12th Saturday afternoon. And it didn't mean a thing anymore when it ended in a 2-1 Nats win.

Because almost an hour before Harper tagged Phillies reliever Colton Murray with one out, Mets closer Jeurys Familia finished the Mets' destruction of the Reds in Cincinnati to clinch the none-too-potent National League East. The division just about all the experts picked the Nats to run away with, all the way to a World Series crown, even.

It belongs to the Mets, against whom the Nats' skittering starting at the end of July probably sealed the Nats' real destiny this time around. The rain falling in Philadelphia when Harper connected was just too cruelly symbolic. Via CSN Atlantic's Chase Hughes, Harper tweeted his hope that the Mets win the World Series. The lad who opened spring training asking, "Where's my ring?" referring to the Max Scherzer signing is too smart to make hard predictions after all.

You just knew, when Lucas Duda put the Mets up early in Cincinnati with a two-out grand slam into the Great American Ballpark's right field tunnel in the first, on the day after he whacked a pair of three-run bombs. When Curtis Granderson fattened the early lead to 5-0 with a two-out solo shot in the second. When Matt Harvey shook off Ivan DeJesus's 2-run double to go six and two-thirds strong enough.

You just knew it'd be a long day in Washington. Maybe you didn't know how much longer it might be made when David Wright hit a 3-run homer in the top of the ninth to make it 10-2, Mets. But you just knew. And it's going to be a long winter coming with the wild cards belonging to the NL Central and the Nats having a lot of splainin' to do.

When they write the story about how this year's Nots were taken down from predicted World Series winners to an early winter vacation, chapter one, and maybe half the book, will be titled "The Ruining of the Bulls." On Saturday, the Nats' bullpen finally did what they had to do to keep the game in reach. It was far too little, far too late.

"Everything just snowballed on us as a group," one of those ruined bulls, Casey Janssen, has said. "This season is one that's going to be a head-scratcher for us and one that kinda got away."

It's been a head scratcher for a lot of Nats observers. And, for no few of Janssen's teammates. The season which started down, up, down, and up again, as high as three games in front of their division pack, kinda got away from the Nats right after the non-waiver trade deadline.

You can wax all you like about manager Matt Williams and his monkey business management. But now it's time to throw a little more fairness into the mixture. In some ways, Williams was thrown a beanball or two, comparable to the ones Jonathan Papelbon threw at Manny Machado for no sane reason Wednesday night.

Maybe the worst-kept secret in baseball was how badly Papelbon wanted off the sinking Philadelphia ship, but why on earth did Nats GM want Papelbon when they had Drew Storen, owner of 29 saves in 31 tries, a 1.73 ERA, and one home run surrendered in 36 1/3 innings prior to the Papelbon acquisition?

Moved to setup duty and the eighth inning after Papelbon's arrival, when Storen (and Papelbon, for that matter) wast being ignored in situations during which you'd think you needed a stopper like five minutes ago, he was a mess when he got his eighth-inning calls. How much of one? How does a 6.75 ERA and three bombs in 18 2/3 innings strike you?

It started after Storen had a couple of more respectable outings in the new role. It finished when Storen showed up 10 September against the Mets in Nationals Park with Curtis Granderson on base and Yoenis Cespedes ("He puts himself in scoring position every time he comes to the plate," Mets captain David Wright has said of him) ready to hit.

On the night after Storen walked three while the Nats blew a 6-run lead to the Mets, Williams decided an otherwise effective Strasburg was a little too vulnerable and brought in Storen. Cespedes — who was the leader of the Mets' offensive resurrection when they dealt for him minutes before the non-waiver deadline struck — hit the second pitch into the visitors' bullpen, and Storen must have wanted to crawl under the infield grass.

That's the option the Nats probably wish he would have taken. What Storen actually did after he was lifted was punch his locker shut and break his right thumb. It ended his season ignominiously — especially after nobody knew about it until he turned up in Miami two days later unable to throw, and only then confessed what he'd done after Cespedes drove a stake into him — but the Nats' miseries weren't over yet.

Before Rizzo made Papelbon a presumably happy camper, Janssen was doing the setup work and a fine job of it. He had a 2.89 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP. After Papelbon's arrival, with Storen shunted back to the eighth, Janssen became mostly a seventh-inning option. And a mess in his own right. His ERA since: 6.88. His WHIP: 1.47. And his home run rate has tripled.

Entering Friday night's activities the Nats pen has blown seven saves in 25 days. And Papelbon has only seven saves since becoming a Nat. Seven saves and two stupid beanballs, the latter of which got him a three-game suspension he's appealing. Is it fair to say the Papelbon deal started these Nots down Oblivion Road to stay?

Not really. Their undoing was also abetted by a disabled list that allowed their intended everyday lineup to be together for a whopping two games; by team leaders not named Harper coming up short enough when they could play that their authority became invisible; by a sterling starting rotation that struggled on nights they needed, really needed, to be sterling; and, by a manager who managed too conservatively on days and night when he needed to leave his Sacred Book behind.

Maybe the real undoing came September 8. When the Nats smoked Harvey into a 7-1 deficit. When they had two outs in the seventh and one Met on. When the bullpen — in order, Blake Trainen, Felipe Rivero, poor Storen — coughed up, in order, a walk, an RBI single, a walk, a bases-loaded walk, a 3-run double, two more walks with a wild pitch in there for good measure, a game-tying walk, and finally a fly out.

"Suddenly," observed Washington Post baseball writer Barry Svrluga, "there was a get-it-over-with, put-us-out-of-our misery feeling to the entire affair. Not just the game. The season."

And Kirk Nieuwenhuis, that up-and-down Met who was brought back and hit three home runs in one fine July game, faced Papelbon perhaps an inning later than Papelbon should have faced anyone in a game that tight, but for his new manager staying stubbornly By The Book — the same book that helped get him shoved out of last year's division series.

Nieuwenhuis and hit what proved the gamer over the right center field fence in the eighth, while Clippard kept his old mates in check to save it. Maybe that let the last air out of the Washington balloon after all.

Why, even in a week when the Mets suddenly got shaky enough against the lost-cause Braves, winning only one of three, the Nats couldn't take advantage. Couldn't creep back to make it a real race again. Couldn't find a way, any way, to make the scheduled season-ending set with the Mets mean a real hair-raising finish.

So the Mets magic number coming into Saturday's play was one, and the Nots' tragic number was done. Maybe it didn't really begin when they threw their effective incumbent closer under the bus. But maybe it'll be long enough before the actual or alleged experts go all-in on picking a World Series winner before the season actually gets underway, too.

"They're beatable," Clippard himself said of the Nats, after he was dealt in late July to the Mets from Oakland, who'd acquired him from the Nats last January, while adding he was more than certain the Mets' vaunted young pitching — Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz — were more than a match for the Nats' arms.

"There's no perfect team in baseball right now," Clippard continued then. Everybody can go on skids. Everybody is vulnerable ... And it's going to be a lot of fun chasing down my old teammates there in Washington. There's a lot of incentive there for me on a personal level and on a professional level to get the job done here in New York."

Now Clippard's got bragging rights on his old team, and a place under a champagne shampoo in the Mets' clubhouse in Cincinnati. The Nats have nothing but a season to play out, and a long off-season to think, re-think, and probably re-model, as well.

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