Stephen Strasburg took the mound shortly after 7:00pm on Friday, July 20, 2012 to face division rivals, the Atlanta Braves. He pitched five scoreless innings, while the Nationals’ bats put up three runs in each of the first, fourth and fifth innings. Putting the score 9-0 Nats by the time the Braves dug in for the top of the 6th. A victory against the Braves was a moral one, for sure, but also important strategically as the Nats battled them throughout the season for the NL East lead. At midseason, you could tell something special was happening for our ballclub; there was, for the first time, a real possibility of playing October baseball. More immediately, the 9-0 lead meant I could close down the MLB Gameday app on my phone and concentrate on the important matter before me now, namely, the my son’s birthday party.
As the game played on without me, Strasburg hit a wall in the top of the 6th and gave up four runs. 9-4, but the Nats still had a comfortable five run lead. The Nats bullpen kept it in check for the next two innings until Drew Storen entered the game the top of the 8th. Ignorance is bliss, as they say and I remained blissfully ignorant of the dumpster fire happening over at Nationals Park while I partied with the kids and their friends. Storen gave up a single and a walk, so Davey Johnson brought in Sean Burnett. Burnett got two quick outs, but walked Martin Prado to load the bases. Then he walked Jason Heyward. 9-5. And a couple more timely hits by Chipper Jones and Freddie Freeman added 3 more runs for the Braves. The 9-0 rout had suddenly become a 9-8 nail-biter.
After the party, we loaded the kids into the backseat of the car and turned on the radio for the ride home. We expected to hear a jubilant Charlie Slowes tell us that the Nats Park fireworks had done their celebratory banging and zooming and that another Curly W had been written into the record books. Instead, he and Dave Jageler sounded a little shell-shocked. We learned how the Nationals squandered their lead—and Strasburg’s nearly flawless five-innings start—and were now facing a few of the Braves’ strongest hitters in the 9th inning. Here’s what we heard as we drove home: Tyler Clippard came into the game. He walked leadoff batter, Dan Uggla. Then Clippard threw a wild pitch to Paul Janish that moved Uggla to second. The good news? The outcome of the game wasn’t affected by Uggla advancing on the wild pitch. The bad news? That’s because the next pitch hit Janish and Uggla would’ve been on second anyway. Then Michael Bourn hit a go-ahead triple that put the Braves up 10-9. I managed to keep the car between the white lines.
By the time we got home, Craig Kimbrel was entering the game in the bottom of the 9th. This was truly remarkable: we were watching Atlanta’s closer come into a game where, maybe an hour earlier, they had been losing 9-0. Kimbrel was now hunching over the mounding going for the win! It would have been a punch to the gut if the Nats went down in order and I was bracing myself for that probability. Kimbrel is one of the best closers in the game and Ian Desmond proved this point by striking out for the first out. Danny Espinosa came to the plate, as the Nats’ only other hope to squeak out a win, while backup catcher/pinch hitter Sandy Leon, stepped into the on-deck circle. Danny Espinosa showed his power against Kimbrel’s scorching fastball and hit a home run into the visitor’s bullpen to tie the game. This was only the second home run Kimbrel had given up that year and an even rarer blown save. The Nats made it interesting, I thought, but we all know that they deserve to win this game; a loss at this point would be an injustice.
However, the Nats didn’t score again and neither did the Braves in the 10th. In the top of the 11th, the Nats continued their sloppy baseball. Ryan Zimmerman airmailed a throw across the diamond, which put Dan Uggla on 2nd instead of on the dugout bench. Then Tom Gorzelanny threw a ball past Sandy Leon and Uggla was standing on third. The next batter, Paul Janish, popped up a blooper to the left side of the infield dirt. Shortstop Ian Desmond was playing in to try to prevent the run from scoring, but the ball flew over his head. He first broke to his right instead of turning to his left and his extended glove failed to catch the pop-up. It dropped in for a single. A few Nats outs later, the Braves had won this game 11-10.
That was it for the night. Or, rather, that should’ve been it for the night. I turned the TV off in exaggerated disgust, all riled up and pretended I was going to sleep. I’m a bad sleeper as it is and if my bedtime routine is disrupted or something’s on my mind, it’s just not going to end well for me. I stewed in my anger and stared at the ceiling for the next 6 or 7 hours. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the nadir of my Natitude.
I barely functioned the next day and I swore off baseball forever. I had tickets to the Sunday game and gave them away. I didn’t want anything to do with this team. I was pissed off. How could they blow a 9-0 lead? How could they give up baserunners with errors and wild pitches and hit batters? C’mon guys, you’re in a pennant race and you’re trying to make the playoffs! This is the big leagues! You can’t play this way and expect to compete for a championship! You blew it! You deserved to lose! And to the Braves, no less!!!
So given the opportunity to tell you about any of the many, many good things I experienced as a Nationals fan, why would I choose to write about my bad attitude after the worst loss in team history? First, this game confirmed for me that I am a fan. I mean, I cared—really, really cared. If I wasn’t a fan, I wouldn’t have taken an ordinary midseason loss so seriously. Never before in my life would I have felt this way about any sort of game.
Second, it was a teachable moment for myself and my kids. As much as I really want my team to win, it’s only a game. I got so worked up about something that’s supposed to be fun and entertainment that I kept myself up all night and didn’t watch anymore baseball for the weekend, I deprived myself of the fun I was supposed to be having because I couldn’t handle a bad ending. I took the loss too seriously. And you know what—not watching any baseball and turning off the TV for a couple of days was actually a really helpful way to release the pressure. I recommend it to you, too. If you find yourself taking things a little too seriously—in baseball, in sports, or in life in general—take a little mental vacation from what’s troubling you. The distance gives you perspective.
Third, it made me better appreciate the game of baseball. The beauty of this game is that everybody gets their chance. Unlike basketball or football, you can’t strategically run down the clock to ensure yourself a win. No, the game doesn’t end until each team gets their 27 outs. Anything can happen between out one and out 27.
Finally, this July loss helped soften the blow of Game 5, about 3 months later. I was at that playoff game. We don’t need to rehash what happened, but it was eerily similar to that July 20 game. An early commanding lead slowly evaporated, even as the park was buzzed with expectation. As everyone around me started celebrating the series victory prematurely, I think I was the only stoic one. “I’ve seen this game before,” I kept telling my friends and others around me, none of whom knew what I was talking about. Even with one strike away from a win in the 9th inning, I wouldn’t let my head go where many others in that ballpark had already gone. This game isn’t over until you get all 27 outs. When that 27th out finally game for the Nats in the bottom of the 9th, many, many Nats fans were going through the stages of disbelief, upset and disappointment I had previously visited in July. Having the experience earlier the season made it easier to deal with the letdown, knowing I could spend the offseason doing others things I enjoy and reigniting my Natitude with hope for next year. And, amazingly, I slept fine on October 12, 2012.