WASHINGTON -- Drew Storen stood in the center of the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, as stoic as he had been on the mound mere minutes before. All around him, white sheets of plastic were nailed to the tops of the walls, ready to protect lockers from the anticipated onslaught of champagne.
But the plastic never unfurled. The champagne never came. And Storen stood before a crowd of questioning faces, trying to explain why.
"I've got a bad taste in my mouth that's going to stay there for a couple of months," Storen said. "It's probably never going to leave."
Closers dream of the situation that Storen faced on Friday, his Nationals leading by two runs in the ninth inning of National League Division Series Game 5. For their part, the Nats could not have been more confident in their closer, who had successfully converted 29 of his last 32 save attempts dating back to last year.
But after Storen followed Carlos Beltran's leadoff double with two quick outs, the game -- not the plastic -- began unraveling.
Storen walked Yadier Molina, who laid off multiple close pitches to earn the free pass. Then he walked 2011 World Series hero David Freese, who also ignored a close slider on a two-strike count. That brought up seventh hitter Daniel Descalso, whose sharp ground ball glanced off the glove of shortstop Ian Desmond and tied the score at 7.
Moments later, Pete Kozma gave the Cardinals the lead for good on a clean two-run single, sending the Nationals spiraling to a 9-7 loss.
"I was on first base, all fired up, and I looked over at the dugout and the guys were going crazy and got fired up even more," Descalso said. "When Pete got that big knock to put us ahead, it was chaos in there."
And Storen, who was twice a single strike away from the save, monopolized the blame.
"We had it right there, and the most disappointing thing, honestly, is I just let these guys down," Storen said. "For the amount of adversity that we dealt with this year, to come down to that is pretty tough."
Others were not so critical. Catcher Kurt Suzuki insisted that Storen made quality pitches, saying, "I really don't know what we would have done differently."
Manager Davey Johnson lamented only the free passes, noting, "He just tried to be too fine."
Even Storen admitted that he "wouldn't change a thing" about his approach, believing that the Cardinals simply beat him.
But no amount of consolation could comfort him.
It's not as if Storen was the only goat. Had starter Gio Gonzalez not given the Cards three runs back after being staked to a six-run lead, the Nationals would not have needed to turn to their bullpen so soon. Had starter-turned-reliever Edwin Jackson not walked the leadoff man in the seventh, the Cardinals might never have drawn within two. And had Tyler Clippard not served up a leadoff homer to Descalso in the eighth, the winning rally might not have materialized.
It was the culmination of a series worth of bullpen struggles for the Nats, who boasted the NL's third-ranked relief corps in the regular season -- thanks in part to Storen, who had a 2.37 ERA in 37 appearances. That bunch pitched in all five NLDS games, combining to post a 7.20 ERA in 20 innings.
"It's hard to describe," Clippard said. "You work real hard to get to this point. You work your whole life. These moments don't come easy. It's been a long year. Lots went into this season. And to have the game end like that, it's tough."
The Nationals understand how much youth is on their roster, with the 25-year-old Storen and the 27-year-old Clippard leading the bullpen. To that end, they also understand that they can use this as a learning experience -- even if, as Storen said, "You've got to let that wound heal first."
But early Saturday morning, they were too stunned to consider anything but the recent past. Largely because of Washington's bullpen, St. Louis completed the largest comeback of any team in history in a winner-take-all elimination game.
Clippard called it "devastating."
"We were one strike away," he said, the sheets of plastic still bunched up above him. "That's tough. That makes it even tougher."