As summer rounded into fall, it was clear that the Nats were going to make the National League playoffs, barring a total meltdown. While the media focused obsessively on Strasburg’s shutdown in September, the team never let its lead in the National League East drop below 4 1 /2 games. “Natitude” became a phenomenon. We couldn’t have given away Nats tickets in 2008; now they’d became prized possessions that made neighbors (and clients) envious.
Alas, the Homer Simpsons could not pull away from the competition as easily. John’s team faded, and he dumped a slew of high-priced veterans to Van on the last day we were allowed to make trades. I had foolishly traded Medlin to another team, Chris Plaushin’s Lannister, who used Medlin’s 10–1 record to make it a three-way race. But some stellar pitching enabled the Simpsons to retake the lead with three days of the regular season to go.
To play it safe, I benched several pitchers, praying Van’s pitchers would not throw well enough to catch up. On the last night of the season, with each of us online in real time, Van lost a point in batting average when another team, out of the running since March, used a pinch-hit single to move ahead by .0001, putting the Simpsons in first place. Van’s apparently last shot to catch me in ERA fell short when star Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw gave up one run and left the game. But as I began to type up an e-mail claiming my sixth FDS crown, the website suddenly refreshed automatically and flipped the ERA standings. So Van had passed me.
What had happened? With a sickening feeling, I clicked on Van’s team to find “Axford, 1.0 IP, 0 ER.” John Axford, the Brewers’ closer, had been sent out for a mop-up, meaningless, but scoreless inning in the last game of the National League season. Van’s ERA stood at 3.4598, mine at 3.4608. The Brewers game ended one minute later, and Van had his fifth FDS title, tying me for the most ever. He also picked up a not insignificant winner’s check. I was one batter short. The season was over.
It took me about three days to recover from the heartbreak, which I shared all too freely with my coworkers, acquaintances, and unfortunate passersby. But at least the Nats had clinched home-field advantage, and we were set for playoff baseball in D.C. for the first time since 1933. The games overlapped with my company’s annual retreat, but there was no way my family and I would miss the playoffs. After a crushing loss in Game 3 to the Cardinals, we watched as Jason Werth battled for 13 pitches before mashing a game-winning homer to force a Game 5.
And what a miraculous Game 5 it was. We seemed blessed when I caught a ball in batting practice and the Nats racked up six runs in the first three innings on rocket home runs from Zimmerman, Harper, and Morse. The Cardinals, however, never roll over easily, and I told Chase above the roars, “We need to keep scoring runs.” Alas, it was the Cards who scored one in the fourth, two in the fifth, one in the seventh, and one in the eighth to close the gap to 6–5. Instead of watching my fantasy team struggling to clinch in front of my laptop, I was watching my hometown team from section 131, row H.
The Nats scratched out a run in the bottom of the eighth, and we needed three outs to advance in the playoffs. After giving up a leadoff double, Storen fed off of the crowd to get two outs. The clock said 12:06 a.m., awfully late for my eleven-year old son to be awake, but there was no way I’d let him miss history. Just as in the pretend baseball league a few days earlier, I needed one out.
As all Nationals fans know, that out came too late, and the history that was made was infamous. Storen threw 13 pitches to Yadier Molina, David Freese, and Daniel Descalso, any one of which could have been the pitch that clinched the series, but when the inning was over, the Cardinals were ahead 9–7. The Nationals went down meekly in the bottom of the ninth, and the series was lost. Chase and I were among the 45,966 fans who trudged home in total silence. The season was over, one batter short, again.
The long, cold, baseball-less winter is coming to a close, and the Nats are in spring training, ready to defend their National League East crown, one year wiser and with Strasberg and Harper, each now with a full year under his belt, as part of their arsenal. I’d bet even money we’ll be sitting in section 131, row H, talking to Martha the usher when they represent the National League in the World Series this fall.
It will take more than one off-season to recover for my Homer Simpsons rotisserie team, however. A failed run for the title means I have little to build with for 2013, but the 23rd year of our league will coincide with our 20th law-school reunion in Charlottesville. I can’t wait to see John and Van and the other owners, normally scattered around the country and connected only by a website and a love for baseball. A love that not even twin heartbreaks can crush. Here’s to Opening Day.
— C. Stewart Verdery Jr. is an attorney and lobbyist at Monument Policy Group in Washington, D.C.