The cruelest game

A week has gone by since That Game, but even a glimpse of baseball on television brings back the sadness. And I have been reminded again and again that in all of my decades of sports fandom, I somehow never experienced this sort of heartbreak until now.

Yes, I was at Nats Park for Game 5 of the National League division series against the St. Louis Cardinals. I had a seat down in the right field corner, 12 rows back, maybe 30 feet away from where previous-night-hero Jason Werth was patrolling. I sat there before the game as Gio Gonzalez walked around in the corner. He bounced up and down and smiled the way he always does. We all sang, “Let’s go, Gio!” to him. My view before the game:

Here was the oddest game of my life, pitting my new favorites against the very team that taught me not just to love baseball, but to love sports of all kinds. This was a winner-take-all game: The series was tied at two games apiece, with the winner moving on to the next round of the baseball playoffs. And my seat gave me an almost outfielder-like view of what came next.

I watched the homers fly out of the yard as the Nats staked themselves to a 6-0 lead by the end of the third inning. I then witnessed the Cardinals crawling back in it, one run at a time, including the homer that landed a few feet away in the 8th to make it 6-5.

And I watched as Kurt Suzuki, who came up big-time all through September, smashed the hit that made it 7-5 Nats in the bottom of the 8th. That insurance run would be the blow that would carry the Nationals, I was sure.

Top of the 9th. Three outs away. Drew Storen on the mound. He’d looked like a stud at season’s end after recovering from elbow surgery. Everyone stood and roared, and the din was loud enough to be painful.

Carlos Beltran led off for the Cardinals with a ringing double. “They can’t do this again,” I immediately thought, flashing back to St. Louis’ improbable 2011 World Series victory. And sure enough, two outs were subsequently rung up without much noise.

One out away. Mayhem in the park. People hugged and high-fived each other, jumped up and down and screamed. I had been here the night before to witness Werth’s hyperdramatic homer that won the game for the Nats. Here I was again, witnessing one of those moments I could talk about for the rest of my life.

What followed: Two walks on two terrific Cardinals at-bats. Storen got to two strikes on David Freese before walking him in one of those at-bats, then got to two strikes again on Daniel Descalso. One strike away. One strike away.

Descalso hit a soul-crushing single that went off Ian Desmond’s glove. Two runs scored. 7-7.

Silence in the park. People held their heads in their hands. Still tied, though.

And then Pete Kozma stroked another single for the Cards, two more runs scored and the hopes of a city synonymous with bad baseball were crushed.

With the damage done, the Nats immediately got the third out from the Cardinals, then went down meekly in the bottom of the 9th. Ryan Zimmerman — he of so many walk-off hits, he who homered in the 1st to give the Nats a 3-0 lead — ended the game with a pop-up.

The fans stood there, stunned, as the Cardinals celebrated on the pitcher’s mound. There’s a little curly ‘W’ logo on the back of that mound. The Cardinals jumped up and down all over it.

I wish there was some way I could feel happy for the Cards, who won a terrifically well-played series. But the sight of that team brings it all back, in the worst way.

I don’t dislike them and am not rooting against them. The objective part of me understands what a remarkable sports achievement this was and my lifelong love of that team doesn’t fade so easily.

Still, once you’ve been shivved like this, you don’t pause to analyze the wound. You just know it hurts like hell.

I’ve been told that in time, these wounds heal. Spring baseball long has been synonymous with renewal, and perhaps when the pitchers and catchers report in February, I’ll be ready to return to the sport I loved first and love the most.

But for me right now, baseball equals pain.

Previously: Somebody registered it | Hokum home

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