It was a historic season in Washington, punctuated by a historic collapse.
Despite the best record in baseball and a division title, the Nationals must now live with the dubious legacy of giving up the biggest comeback in postseason closeout game history at home.
They will try to spin this as a learning experience. In losing a game, however—and ultimately this series with their ace inactive—it may be a loss that could devastate the franchise indefinitely.
The Nationals gave Washington a summer of unprecedented memories that raised the level of expectations for a town that has not enjoyed the sweet taste of a championship since 1991.
With the Redskins underachieving and the Capitals mastering the art of consistent playoff disappointment, D.C. was ready to embrace a championship run.
Title starved fans who have been teased for over 20 years instead get this bitter pill to swallow.
Their future seems promising, but there is no guarantee the Nationals will get back to within a strike of the National League Championship Series anytime soon. There will not be another season where limited expectations are exceeded by the euphoria of a team who simply makes the playoffs.
The bar has been raised by the 98-win season and the Eastern Division crown. Their magic carpet ride of 2012 has been replaced by the unrelenting expectations of a city that will demand nothing short of a trip to the World Series from now on.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the Nationals as currently constructed will ever rebound from this historic collapse. Baseball history is littered with franchises who have been within strikes of winning a series but were ultimately crushed, derailing their championship hopes for decades.
In 1986, the California Angels were within a strike of finally getting Gene Mauch to the World Series in Game 5 of the ALCS.
Dave Henderson then launched a Donnie Moore pitch into the left field bleachers, which was the catalyst for the Boston Red Sox comeback win in extra innings.
They took the next two games at home to win the pennant.
The Angels were never the same and Moore ultimately took his own life. It took the Anaheim Angels 16 years and a name change before they would finally win the World Series in 2002.
Boston was also within a strike of winning the world championship in 1986 at Shea Stadium. Mookie Wilson’s grounder that went through Bill Buckner’s legs kept the “Curse of the Bambino” intact as the Mets—ironically, managed by Davey Johnson—would go on to win that game and World Series in seven games.
The long suffering Red Sox nation then had to endure another 18 years of what may have been before the glory of 2004. In exorcising the demons of previous postseason collapses, however, it was their two-out rally in game four against the New York Yankees that propelled them to the AL pennant.
They won four straight and that ultimately gave the momentum to win their first world championship since 1918.
Even with all of their glorious history, the Yankees needed five years to recover before they won their 27th world championship in 2009. The Cardinals are now to the Nationals what the Yankees were to the Red Sox until 2004.
Washington has been built to remain in contention for the long haul. They will get Stephen Strasburg back next season and young players such as Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond figure to get better.
But this devastating loss will linger well beyond the offseason.
It will shape the careers of their young stars who lived through the collapse. Until the Nationals can find a way to win a championship, it will be the defining image of the franchise and that shadow will grow darker for years to come.