A Closing Argument Falls Flat
The Washington Nationals season ended in agony on October 13 at 12:30 pm. What had been the best pitching staff in baseball was no where to be found over the final six innings of baseball last night. When Washington scored six runs in the first three innings off Adam Wainwright, the momentum of the previous evening kept right on going and the standing room crowd at Friday’s game assumed it easily would carry the Nationals into the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants who had won earlier in the day.
Gio Gonzalez was handed a 6-0 lead. He is the best Washington has. He allowed a single run in the fourth inning, no worries. The 6-1 score was earned by the heart of the Cardinal lineup that is dangerous. After giving up a walk and a double, Gonzalez settled down to retire the side that inning with David Freese going down looking. It was the last time that umpire Alphonso Marquez would insert himself into a Cardinal at bat in such a manner. There would be eight free passes issued to the Cardinals at critical junctures in the game; not a single Cardinal would be called out at the plate for the remaining five innings.
It started in the fifth when Gio Gonzalez lost the strike zone and walked three and allowed a run to score on a wild pitch. The damage was more widespread than the DC earthquake. Washington’s lead shrank to 6-3 and Gonzalez was done for the night. But the worst of it may have been the impact that Gonzalez’s inning of wildness had on home plate umpire Marquez. From that point on, the strike zone for Washington pitchers seemed to shrink noticeably.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was sitting just a few seats away from me. I had been over to thank her for her ruling in 1995 that has done more than anything to bring baseball back to prosperity and its current era of good feelings. But after Judge Marquez began to issue his unfriendly rulings from his bench behind the plate, it seemed that a sympathetic ear might be found on appeal. There are no shortage of lawyers in the stands on any given day at Nationals Park. Surely there was someone who could file the appropriate court papers. There was an injustice being done and it should go all the way to the Supreme Court. Give us a break on the strike zone, Justice Sotomayor, this guy is killing us.
There would be no appeal. Our writ of certiorari was denied and we were left to fend with Judge Marquez for the rest of the night without any intervention from Justice Sotomayor, who is after all a Yankee fan. Her clerks, seating along the row with her, were stone faced as well, more absorbed in their pizza and beer than the bad calls being issued from the bench behind the plate.
Despite the refusal from the court, Washington continued to lead. But it was dwindling. The score stood at 6-4 at the top of the eighth when Tyler Clippard gave up a solo home run. The lead was only 6-5, so in the bottom of the eighth the Nationals were intent on pushing across a precious commodity–an insurance run.
Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche hit two loud singles off Jason LaMotte to lead off. Cardinal manager Matheny brought in LaMotte’s 99 mph fastball early. He was going all in to keep the Washington lead to a single run.
Then Ian Desmond’s hard grounder moved LaRoche to third and Desmond was too quick for the Cards to turn the double-play. Runners were on the corners and one out. From there Kurt Suzuki brought LaRoche home with a clutch hit through the right side. The Nationals had their hard-won extra run and the score stood at 7-5 Nationals. Washington closer, Drew Storen was summoned to finish off the NLDS with a Washington win.
There had been nothing easy about any of the games Washington had played against St. Louis in late September and the playoff series continued the tensions. No one was leaving their seats, or sitting in them for that matter. But there was something different in the crowd. The previous night there had been an imploring quality to the cheers. Everyone was standing for the final three innings, screaming themselves hoarse. The crowd had begged their home team for a victory with their imploring chants and Jayson Werth had answered with the walk-off homer.
The Friday night crowd was a few hundred souls larger, but it was more of a weekend crowd. The beer was almost as important as the baseball. It was hard to put your finger on the difference, but it was there. Still, Michael Morse had answered the crowd that sang his walk-up song A cappela with a single that set up the insurance run, so maybe it was all the same. Or perhaps it was just me, too old and grumpy to understand how the younger crowd approached the game.
When Storen finished his warm up tosses it was apparent that the cool night had subtracted a few inches from the Storen fastball that topped out at 94 to Carlos Beltran. He rang a double into right center that one-hopped the wall. It was not a good beginning, but Storen found some extra gas for the next two hitters. He got Holliday on a grounder to third and Allen Craig struck out swinging. The momentum was all Washington’s. There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the score still 7-5 Washington and the game seemed all but settled.
Then the denial on appeal had its worst affects. Yadier Molina refused to offer at a 2-2 pitch that was ever so close. The count was 3-2 and the umpire called the same pitch ball four and there were runners at the corners, still two out. David Freese came to the plate. He fouled off a slider and a sinker and the count was 1-2. Only a strike separated the Nationals from advancing to the NLCS. The crowd was on its feet screaming, waving the red swag, but there was no friendly ruling from the bench. Storen had Freese 1-2, and the next pitch was ever so close but ruled a ball. Then it was 2-2, then 3-2.
Freese took all three pitches. All three were close, but each one was called a ball by home plate umpire Marquez. Almost any of them could have been called a strike, but the umpire was too insecure to end the game on his own judgement. There would be no last minute ruling in favor of the condemned by the judge.
The bases were loaded for Daniel Descalso. This time there was no uncertainty. Storen’s first pitch was a 94-mph sinker that was sent burning along the ground toward Ian Desmond who could not reach it. Two runs scored to tie the knot the game at 7-7. Then Kosma singled to drive the nails into the coffin. The final score was 9-7. Four runs scored in the ninth inning with two outs. There had been two-strikes on three different batters and never a reprieve granted.
There is no joy in Washington. The closing arguments of Drew Storen went down to defeat as surely as a 5-4 ruling by a divided court.
But there is much to celebrate here in the nation’s capitol. No one would have predicted an NL East Championship for the Nationals at the beginning of the season. These post-season games have generated more interest in baseball than has been seen in this town in half a century.
And if the rowdies from Friday night don’t remember much about the game, there are all of those kids whose parents let them skip school for the afternoon game on Wednesday or who saw the early evening triumph on Thursday. They will be fans for life. They have found their team. They have discovered heroes that they fondly will remember in adulthood.
Me, I will remember Justice Sotomayor and her retinue of law clerks enjoying a ball game on a cold weekend night. You don’t find the Supremes at a game on the south side of Chicago, Mr. President. So bring on 2013. Pitchers and catchers report in four months. Get the stove lit. there is already a chill in the air.
Photos courtesy of Marc Hall, Marc G. Hall Law Offices, Rockville, MD