Back to Earth….. with a Thud

As the Giants and Tigers square off in the World Series, my thoughts turn to what might have been…

A Nats season ticket holder since 2005 and a Yankee fan since birth, I woke up two weeks ago pulsating at the prospect of the best baseball week, or fortnight, of my life. And it was not inconceivable that this magical stretch might culminate in a Yanks-Nats World Series, with me ticketed behind first base with four tickets to the Greatest Show on Earth. Friends I’d written off for dead were inquring about my health.

The tune on the tips of my tongue that Monday morning was “I’m in Heaven, I’m in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can barely speak. And I seem to find the happiness we seek, when we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.”

It’s been seventy seven years since the lovestruck Fred Astaire croooned these Irving Berlin lyrics to Ginger Rogers in “Top Hat,” but substitute the horsehide sphere for Rogers’ deep blue eyes, and you capture how I felt. Little did I know that five days later I’d be mouthing “Heartbreak Hotel” (for the Nats), and that not long after, I’d be writing script for the Yanks’ dynasty tombstone,

Going in, both teams were the short favorites in their league to make it to the World Series, but for different reasons. The Yanks, playoff participants in seventeen of the past eighteen years, were riding their reputation. The Nats, the first Washington team to play in October since 1933, had the best team.

And the respective Divisional Series began so promisingly. The Nats squeezed out a 3-2 victory over the Cards with a two-out eighth inning bleeder by pinch hitter Tyler Moore and a decisive save by closer Drew Storen. The Yanks broke open a 2-2 game in Baltimore with five runs in the top of the ninth inning. All was well.

With the prospect of attending six playoff games in one week, I drove to Baltimore Monday night for game 2 of the ALDS. Baltimore fans were giddy. The O’s having so unexpectedly made the playoffs, the fans were running on house money. Everything was great. No worries. And why should there be? The O’s were 31-10 in 1-run games. They had won an incredible 16 straight in extra innings.

The Yanks spurted out of the gate in Game 2. A walk to Jeter and a single by Ichiro set the table for A-Rod. In an at-bat which set the tone for his playoff failures, the fading superstar ripped a liner over second base, surely destined for center field. But Andino made a diving grab and flipped to second for the double play. Instead of one run in, no out, first and third, it was two out and a runner on first. The Yanks eked out a first inning run on an acrobatic slide by Ichiro after a double by Teixeira, but Andino’s play saved a big inning. Andy Pettitte had less than his best stuff, and the O’s clawed their way to a 3-2 win, tying the series at 1-1 and their season series with the Yanks at 10-10.

After a game 2 drubbing in St.Louis to tie the series, the Nats returned home Wednesday to a sundrenched day before an adoring crowd. The 1:00 start was reminiscent of the World Series games of my youth. All that was missing was the black and white TV flickering in the appliance store. It was an idyllic setting punctuated by a glorious rendition of the national anthem and the roar of the Navy Seals flying overhead just before first pitch. Despite the newness of the surroundings to the young Nats, particularly when compared to the battle-tested Cards, few at Nats Park seriously doubted the ability of the homestanders to prevail.

With Edwin Jackson on the mound, the crowd stood up on every 2-strike pitch, no matter the count, no matter the score. In New York, they know to withhold these bursts of frenzy until there are two outs. But the not ready for prime time DC fans knew no such limitations. When the Cards burst to an early 5-0 lead, the exuberance seemed out of place. At 8-0, the practice became downright annoying. Belying its naivete, the crowd even cheered negative plays, as when La Roche bounded into a force at second with one out and runners on first and second.

With the Nats’ backs to the wall for Game 4, tension heightened for Thursday’s 4:00 tilt. Crowd merriment subsided, replaced by fear. As the sun turned to shadows, and the thrill mixed with chill, there ensued the most gripping game of the Nats 2012 season. In the second inning, against Cardinal ace Kyle Lohse, LaRoche ignited the crowd, first with a foul homer, then with a real one. The 1-0 lead lasted only an instant, thanks to an infield error by Desmond. Lohse and Detwiler matched zeroes through the sixth when the Nats bullpen took over. Nat relievers Zimmerman, Clippard, and Storen struck out eight of the next nine batters.Then Jason Werth faced Lance Lynn to lead off the ninth.

The most overpriced player in the majors, A-Rod excepted, Werth had received a pass this year. Since returning from a wrist injury which sidelined him from April to August, Werth batted leadoff and eked out a .300 average. With five sluggers following him in the lineup and the team successful, Nat fans were inclined to overlook Werth’s pathetic power numbers (5 hr, 31 rbi). And what happened next probably extended his grace period into next June. After a 13-pitch at bat, including at least three feeble popups which barely made their way into the stands, Werth met a Lynn fast ball just right and sent it soaring into the visitor’s bullpen in left field. The stage was set for game five Friday night.

To the north, the Bronx Bombers, now known as the Bronx Peashooters, were suffering a power outage which threatened to end their season prematurely. Several of the Yanks’ big guns – A-Rod, Cano, Swisher and Granderson- had become strikeout machines, as in “all they do is strike out.” These four, who earned 65 million/annum, combined to strike out 44 times in 125 at-bats times in the playoffs while batting to a collective .112 (14-125). In the words of Yank commentator Ken Singleton, they were “lost at the plate,” their indecision reflected in a flurry of checked swings.

In the case of Cano and Swisher, the problem was of sudden onset. Cano had closed the season on a 24-39 tear and Swisher had finished at a fast clip. But with A-Rod, the problems appeared to be of a more serious nature. Since returning from a hand injury in early September, the once-dangerous slugger had been helpless against right-handers, resembling a Punch and Judy hitter more than the compiler of 647 home runs.

By game three, the savvy New York crowd had already lost its patience with this group of over-swinging sluggers. At Nats Park and Camden Yards, it was sardine room only; but at the Stadium, throughout the playoffs, rows of empty seats were visible behind home plate and in the lower levels. The Yanks’ stirring 12-inning triumph in game 3, on two Raul Ibanez home runs, and their eventual victory over the O’s in five games, did nothing to quell the general uneasiness about the team’s prospects.

Game Five for the Nats, a game which will live in infamy, could not have begun better. Before the foam had subsided on the evening’s first beer, the Nats had plated three runs off Card starter Adam Wainwright – a double by Werth, a triple by Harper, and a booming homer by Zimmerman. Then, in the third, they took a 6-0 lead on homers by Harper and Morse. It would take the greatest collapse in a deciding game in Major League history for the Nats to lose this one. On the Win Expectancy Meter, the Nats enjoyed a 96.3% probability of success.

But that statistiic did not factor in a lack of playoff maturity and a slew of managerial miscues by Davey Johnson. When starter Gio Gonzalez walked four batters leading to three runs before being yanked, the Cards had crawled to 6-3. Johnson’s first mistake was leaving Gonzalez in too long. Then, he brought in starter Edwin Jackson for relief for the seventh inning instead of regular reliever Ryan Mattheus. The combustible Jackson was an odd choice since he had been shelled in Game 3 Wednesday and was not accustomed to relieving. He was lucky to escape with only one run allowed. When Clippard allowed a home run to light-hitting Descalzo in the eighth, the margin became razor thin; but an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth restored the win expectancy to a healthy 96.5% entering the top of the 9th.

With closer Drew Storen on the mound with a 2-run lead, the Nats could not have asked for better positioning. Even after Carlos Beltran’s lead-off double, Storen retired the next two batters and had two strikes on Yadier Molina with Beltran on third. The crowd stoked to a frenzy. Strangers were slapping five and exchanging hugs. Then, Storen became over-cautious and walked Molina. After several more 2-strike counts, he did the same with Freese. After the pesky Descalso poked a game-tying single to center off Desmond’s glove, Johnson chose to pitch to shortstop Kozma rather than to issue an intentional walk to bring up the pitcher’s spot, occupied by closer Jason Motte, who had already pitched the 8th inning. To creep back, the Cards had already burned their primary pinch hitters, and they had no one reliable in the bullpen.

But Johnson chose to pitch to Kozma, whose line single to right field dashed the Nats’ hopes, and season. After having been hailed as a wizard all year long, Johnson’s instincts had failed him. In game 5, everything he tried went wrong. His mistakes will be part of a legacy which will last until the Nats achieve post-season success.

In the Bronx, the aftertaste was just as sour. The Tigers 4-game sweep left the Yanks in disarray and with many decisions to make in the off-season. At least, the Nats can rely on the quality of their roster and the depth of their pitching staff to look promisingly to next season.

It’s a long plunge from baseball heaven to the double whammy inflicted on my Yanks and Nats – a devastating deciding game defeat followed by an humiliating 4-game sweep. It’s enough to make one turn to football. Does anybody need World Series tickets?

But enough with the mourning. It’s back to the future….. San Francisco in six.

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