The silence told the story.
The only sound that filled Nationals Park came from the infield, where the St. Louis Cardinals screamed and hollered and hugged. From the home dugout, the Nationals only could watch, their season coming to a shocking, sudden end with a 9-7 loss in a decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Friday night.
The Nats took a 6-0 lead after three innings and yet could not hold it. St. Louis chipped away at the plate, and its bullpen did a masterful job of picking up battered starter Adam Wainwright, who allowed three home runs and put his team in a deep hole. In the end, however, the Cardinals scored four runs in the ninth inning -- the devastating blows a pair of two-run singles by No. 7 hitter Daniel Descalso and No. 8 hitter Pete Kozma off Washington closer Drew Storen. And so the Cardinals shook off a devastating Game 4 loss after Jayson Werth's walk-off home run and won the series anyway 3-2. They advance to the NL Championship Series, where they will face the San Francisco Giants, winners of the NL West title.
"You can't take anything for granted in this game," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "You've got to play the whole thing out. And they had the upper hand."
After Wainwright departed with one out in the third inning, the bullpen retired the next 10 batters in a row to help hold the deficit.
Meanwhile, St. Louis clawed its way back into the game. A walk to Carlos Beltran was followed by an RBI double from Matt Holliday in the fourth inning. Then in the fifth, Nats starter Gio Gonzalez turned in a frame eerily similar to his disastrous second inning of Game 1.
He gave up consecutive singles to Descalso and Kozma -- thorns in Washington's side all series long. Then pinch hitter Shane Robinson drew a walk. Gonzalez threw a wild pitch that scored Descalso and walked in another run to make it 6-3. With the bases loaded and the go-ahead run at the plate in Yadier Molina, he fell behind 2-0 in the count before inducing a fly ball to right. But that still set the stage for a tense final four innings.
"I don't think anybody saw it coming," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "We talked about it the other day. We said that when you pile on five, six runs, whatever it was, you've got to continue to pile on more. We didn't do that."
Indeed, Washington's offense went cold against the Cardinals' bullpen. Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica retired 10 consecutive batters after Wainwright's departure before Danny Espinosa walked and Kurt Suzuki singled with two out in the sixth. But Mujica struck out pinch hitter Roger Bernadina to keep the score 6-3.
The margin was trimmed further in the seventh when starter Edwin Jackson was called upon in relief -- as Jordan Zimmermann had been a day earlier to great effect. A walk to Jon Jay and a double by Beltran set up an RBI ground out by Holliday to make it 6-4. In the eighth, the panic grew as Descalso homered off Tyler Clippard to right field. Suddenly it was 6-5 and the margin was almost gone.
"I think everybody stuck to their strengths, made some good pitches," Clippard said. "At the end of the day they capitalized on some mistakes and laid off some really quality pitches. They got a good veteran club over there and they've done it before and they did it to us tonight."
Not even an insurance run on an RBI single by Suzuki in the eighth would be enough to stop the Cardinals from an incredible rally. Beltran led off with a double against Storen in the ninth. But a ground out and a strikeout put Washington one pitch away from advancing to the NLCS. Instead, Molina and David Freese drew walks to load the bases. Descalso then smashed a hard grounder that skidded just off a lunging Desmond's glove at short as two runs scored to tie it. With both the crowd and the Nats dugout in shock Kozma laced a single to right that scored two more and put St. Louis ahead for the first time as its dugout exploded with joy. Twice Storen had been one strike away from ending it. Twice the resilient Cardinals, defending World Series champs, found a way to survive.
"It's part of the job. It's the best job when you're good at it and it's the worst job when you fail," Storen said.
In the ninth - with the celebratory beer and champagne efficiently moved out of the home clubhouse, with the plastic covering in place to protect the contents of the Nats' lockers quickly torn off the walls - Cardinals closer Jason Motte retired Werth, Harper and Zimmerman in order to secure the series win. The champagne was already waiting for them when they reached the visitors' clubhouse. For Washington, NL East champion and the team with baseball's best record at 98-64, a long, agonizing offseason had begun far sooner than expected.
"We've got a terrific ballclub and fortunately for us the majority of us are returning," Desmond said. "Things like this if they don't kill you only make you stronger. And if we get any stronger we're going to be pretty darn good."