WASHINGTON -- Even in a decisive, win-or-go-home Game 5, nobody saw this coming.
Friday night's conclusion to the National League Division Series between the Nationals and Cardinals will be remembered for a blown 6-0 lead, Drew Storen's five chances at getting one game-ending strike and the brutal ending to a season that wildly surpassed many of the expectations for one of the youngest teams in baseball. All of a sudden, after clinging to championship hopes that grew more viable by the day, the Nats now begin their offseason with the unenviable burden of watching the Cards pursue a second straight World Series title.
"It's devastating," said Tyler Clippard. "We were one strike away."
Clippard and his teammates, to a man, expressed how they will move forward as a team into the winter. Outwardly, Storen will be recognized as the culprit of the collapse. But throughout a lengthy, mournful postgame clubhouse, several teammates embraced and encouraged the 25-year-old closer. Storen, who worked his way back from an April surgery that removed bone chips from his right elbow, spent much of his shortened season battling to regain the closer role that Clippard -- his roommate and closest friend on the team -- seized in his absence.
Storen finished the regular season with a 3-1 record, four saves and a 2.37 ERA in 30 1/3 innings. In the final month of the season, Storen thrived and ultimately regained the closer's job as Clippard struggled with inconsistency. Over September and October, Storen went 2-1 with three saves and a 1.17 ERA, striking out 14 batters without walking a single one.
But early Saturday morning, several hours after the Nats had built a once-comfortable six-run lead, Storen faced questions that he will undoubtedly relive in the offseason.
"Not yet, but eventually I'm sure it'll be a learning process," Storen said. "I've got to let that wound heal first, I guess."
The wounds, of course, will heal eventually. The Nats, perhaps facing only one significant offseason question in the future of first baseball Adam LaRoche (mutual team option), will return in 2013 as heavy favorites to once again win the NL East. Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth will lead the way, while Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Ian Desmond will each look to further their emergence as All-Star-caliber players.
But for now, the aftermath of the cruel finality set forth by a season-ending unraveling is all that remains.
"It's very difficult," said general manager Mike Rizzo. "The finality of these playoffs is just that. We don't know what to do tomorrow. It's Saturday, and we don't have a game."
It will be several months before the Nats do have another game, and much longer until they might have one remotely as meaningful.
But the hidden layer of accomplishment, forged throughout a year where they finished with the best record in baseball and rewarded the nation's capital with its first taste of playoff baseball in 79 years, wasn't lost on every member of the Nationals. Zimmerman, the most suitable "face of the franchise" type of player after he was the Nats' first Draft pick in 2005, took awhile before emerging from the the players-only areas of the clubhouse to remind the swell of media about the season's lasting achievement.
"It's definitely going to take some time," said Zimmerman. "But to do a lot of the things we did this year as a team, we had a bunch of individual guys have great seasons, obviously to win a division -- to do a lot of things that have never even been thought of around here, it was a great year."
One of the last players hanging around to chat with reporters was Mark DeRosa, now 37 years old and pondering whether his 15-year career has reached its end. Signed as a free agent last winter, a wrist injury severely limited DeRosa to a .188 batting average over just 48 games.
Easily one of the most congenial players in baseball, DeRosa became the most valuable veteran voice in a clubhouse with an average age of just under 28 years. Before Thursday's Game 4, one the Nats won on a riveting walk-off home run by Jayson Werth, DeRosa took a popular pregame activity -- karaoke introductions of everyone from players, coaches and longtime beat writers over a boom box microphone at his locker -- and put a serious twist on it. DeRosa read an excerpt from Teddy Roosevelt's "Citizenship In A Republic," known more commonly as "The Man in the Arena," to a room full of young players in the midst of their first postseason action.
In the afterglow of the riveting Game 4 win, several Nats players admitted to the galvanizing effect of the speech. In a season in which DeRosa's wisdom adopted a greater influence than his on-field performance -- "This was the first time in my career I ever hit a buck-eighty and had fun," he cracked -- DeRosa was nothing but open, honest and enlightening in what might have been his final postgame media session.
"It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, no doubt," DeRosa said. "And that's the thing, they need to remember this feeling when they're in this situation again. It's not easy to win the whole thing, and when you do, that's why you see the players celebrate the way they celebrate, because a lot of things have to go your way."
Mike Fiammetta is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.