ST. LOUIS -- There was no champagne-filled celebration in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium on Sunday evening, no raucous revelry to accompany what could have been a momentous occasion.
Instead, after dropping a 10-4 decision to the Cardinals, the Nationals spoke quietly, but confidently, about their latest missed opportunity and the exciting possibility of clinching in front of their home crowd at Nationals Park on Monday night.
Needing only one more win or an Atlanta loss to finally clinch the National League East title, the Nationals fell way behind early on when the Cardinals roughed up starter Ross Detwiler and reliever Chien-Ming Wang. And they didn't get any help from the Braves, who trounced the Mets, 6-2, and kept Washington's magic number frozen at one.
"I had the first chance at it, and I [stunk]," said Detwiler, who surrendered seven runs and walked five in 2 1/3 innings. "This was for all the fans back in D.C. Wanted them to see the team clinch."
Making his first Major League start in his hometown, Detwiler admitted he was trying to do too much and struggled to find an arm slot, sending his sinker pretty much everywhere but the strike zone. Only three of those were earned runs due to an uncharacteristic error by second baseman Danny Espinosa on a double-play ball, but Detwiler's inability to record outs was the main culprit in his second straight shaky outing.
Three of those walks came in the second inning, when the Cardinals put up five runs on Pete Kozma's two-run double, a run-scoring single by Jon Jay and a two-run homer by Carlos Beltran. Manager Davey Johnson thought Detwiler was relying too much on his fastball and not utilizing his other pitches enough on top of being amped up to pitch in front of his family and friends.
But his hometown outing didn't last long, as Detwiler put on the first two batters he faced in the third then gave way to Wang, an unusual choice by Johnson considering the manager's all-hands-on-deck approach as the Nationals try to officially lock down the NL East. Wang won't be on Washington's postseason roster, has mostly struggled when called upon this season and hadn't pitched in a week.
Yet Johnson called upon Wang to at least hold the line in a game that could have ended in a champagne celebration, explaining afterward that he didn't want to burn through his bullpen while the Nationals were trailing. Wang didn't make Johnson's decision look any better, immediately firing his first two pitches to the backstop to score one run. Kozma sent a sacrifice fly to deep center field on Wang's third pitch, putting the Cardinals ahead by seven.
The Nationals bounced back and powered their way to a four-run fourth inning, riding Bryce Harper's 22nd homer of the season -- a franchise rookie record -- followed by an RBI double from Ian Desmond and a two-run shot hammered to right by Espinosa. That cut the Nationals' deficit to three runs, and the rally could have continued after Kurt Suzuki was hit by a pitch.
"At that point, when you're down by three, it feels very reachable," Espinosa said. "In the dugout, everyone was ready to go, so it definitely energized us."
But Johnson elected not to pinch-hit for Wang, hoping to get more innings out of him, and the reliever struck out to end the inning. He came back out in the bottom of the inning and gave up two more runs, walking Jay before Beltran blasted another home run that put St. Louis ahead by five.
"I don't try to put my best foot forward when we're down," Johnson said. "He gives up the home run, and that was another crushing blow."
That put the game far out of Washington's reach, and it became time to look forward, to wonder about the residual effects of this missed opportunity.
Will Detwiler's poor finish affect his spot in the playoff rotation? No, Johnson said, just like Edwin Jackson's terrible outing Friday night didn't cause the manager to lose any confidence in his starters.
"It's not really the time I want to see it. But they've been so good, I'm not worried about it," Johnson said. "I don't have a doghouse."
What happens if Washington winds up drawing St. Louis in the NL Division Series? The Nationals said this playoff-type series was good for them, and they'll be eager to get back at the Cardinals if they play in about a week. That wasn't the answer coming from the home clubhouse, however.
"We didn't really show this Washington team the kind of team that we are when we were in Washington last time," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "I just think the guys need that chip on their shoulders every time we walk out of the clubhouse, like we have something to prove to somebody. We did that this time."
But the most immediate question is whether lefty John Lannan can step up in another important moment, delivering the Nationals the one victory they've been waiting for all season?
"How do you not have confidence in anybody pitching?" Desmond said. "Our pitching has been great all year and they've gotten us to the position we're at."
"We've had rough outings before and come back good. We'll be fine," Johnson added. "And I like clinching at home in front of the home fans. That's nice."