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October’s curse

October 13, 2012

If Jayson Werth had led off game five with a double in most Octobers, it would be a good baseball player justifying part of an absurd $126 million, 7-year contract. When he scored on a Bryce Harper triple, the golden boy would have lived up to all of the hype and earned his place onto another Sports Illustrated cover.

The Cardinals celebrate their 9-7 comeback win over the Nationals Friday night. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Then, when Harper cracked a monster home run in the third inning, the story was supposed to be how this precocious star and these carefree Nationals revitalized baseball in Washington, D.C., making a hardened press corps care more about baseball than about swing state polling numbers.

Early Friday night, early Public Policy Polling numbers out of Ohio showed Mitt Romney pulling at least into a tie with Barack Obama. Nobody cared — the Nationals were ahead in the first deciding game of a playoff series that D.C. had seen since 1925. (The Washington Senators, by the way, lost that game to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a contest that for the next 87 years held the record for the biggest comeback in a do-or-die game in postseason history.)

This October, though, is unlike any other in recent memory.

D.C. fans stayed full of #Natitude for the first third of last night’s contest, with newfound ace Gio Gonzalez cruising well enough that those same fans forgot — if only for a few innings — that ace Stephen Strasburg was justifiably not pitching in these playoffs. In the fourth inning, though, that confidence began to waver just a little bit when Gonzalez let up a run. Those fans began to fidget in their seats a little bit more when Gonzalez labored through the fifth. Davey Johnson was supposed to pop out of the dugout at some point during that painful 36-pitch inning, pulling his ace for a long man and ensuring that the Nationals would be facing San Francisco where, for once, the media would forget that Goliath is supposed to be a Giant. He never showed up, though, and by the time the damage was done the Nats’ lead was cut to 6-3.

Normalcy seemed to return when the Cardinals didn’t score in the sixth inning. In the seventh, Johnson turned to Edwin Jackson to prevent even more damage. The $10 million pitcher, who earned the contract with some masterful performances in a Cardinal jersey last October, was shaky for much of September, including a start where he gave up eight runs to these same Redbirds.

This time, the first two opposition hitters hit their way to second and third base before Jackson could force an out. With Matt Holliday up and no outs, though, Jackson somehow only surrendered one run. The score was now 6-4 headed into the top of the eighth, with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen prepared to hold down the end of the game. Daniel Descalso forced the Nationals’ fans to bite their fingernails down to their bloody quicks when he hit a home run to right field, bringing the Cards within a run before Clippard could struggle through three outs.

In the bottom of the eighth, the fates seemed to snap awake and understand that Nationals were supposed to make a deep run into October this year. That perception was further reinforced in the bottom of the inning when Kurt Suzuki hit a single to center, regaining the Nats’ two-run lead.

Trying to avoid another historic comeback, Johnson turned to Drew Storen for the fourth time in five days. Storen gave up a leadoff double to Beltran before getting two outs and, suddenly, the Nationals were going to escape.

This is October, though,a month where nothing is ever as it seems and the last laugh tends to be a witch’s cackle. The league’s best team had already been eliminated after snatching a two-game lead, and the most expensive player in the history of the game got benched so that an aging star could tie — then win — a game on two pitches earlier this week.

Storen, who looked so cool hanging out on the Nats’ dugout railing throughout the game, tightened up, walking Yadier Molina and David Freese to load the bases. When Daniel Descalso hit a ground ball up the middle that glanced off the glove of a diving Ian Desmond, the game was tied up and momentum was decidedly in the Cardinals’ favor.

Up next, though, was rookie shortstop Pete Kozma, only playing because regular shortstop Rafael Furcal was injured. The 24-year-old Kozma hit .232 at AAA Memphis this summer, developing a reputation as an all-glove, little-bat player. Since being recalled, though, Kozma had hit .333, and this situation that was supposed to be safe wasn’t. Kozma lined a single to right and the Nationals were behind, never to come back.

The Cardinals’ hero last year was David Freese, who did so only after botching a routine fielding play. By comparison, Kozma has looked steady and — like his Cardinals teammates — didn’t waver in the face of a six-run deficit.

At the beginning of this postseason, the story was the new blood of the smarter-than-Moneyball Oakland A’s, the babyfaced Baltimore Orioles, and the arms of the Washington Nationals. Over 28 hours, all of those teams were sent to say good byes in the locker room en route to a golf course of their choosing and the names left were familiar — the Cardinals, Giants, Tigers, and Yankees. (And honestly, take a minute and look at those names. This might be the most traditional final four in the wild card era.)

After the game, the Nationals’ suddenly haggard Johnson couldn’t explain what had happened, only mustering the ability to mention that the team had proved its worth over the course of the season, and he was right. The only explanation, really, is that this is October, and in October, Steve Bartman grabs the foul ball, reporters should never feel too comfortable with their ledes, and teams of destiny fall apart.

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