Rambunctious as ever, fans seemed to anticipate the Nats eventually sparking a promising rally in National League Division Series Game 3, loading the bases with two outs in the fifth. But Michael Morse popped up to end the inning, exacerbating Washington's week-long issues with runners in scoring position while accelerating its spiral to an 8-0 loss and a 2-1 series hole.
For the first time all afternoon, Nationals Park grew silent.
"When you get behind early," manager Davey Johnson said, "sometimes it takes the wind out of your sails."
And when you stay behind, never scoring, those sails remain flat. This was no isolated incident. The Nationals entered the game batting just .188 with runners in scoring position for the series, leaving 19 men on base over their first two games. Then they went 0-for-8 with RISP in Game 3, stranding another 11 runners.
The nadir came in the fifth, when Morse flew out representing the potential tying run.
"I'm looking for a pitch over the plate, just up the middle," he said. "Something I can put in play."
The Nats did not continue stranding runners in the later innings simply because they ceased putting men on base; after Steve Lombardozzi hit a pinch-hit single with two outs in the sixth, Cards pitchers retired the next nine batters in order, effectively ending the game.
In a way, it seemed jarring. This is a team that ranked fifth in the NL in total offense during the regular season, crushing the second-most home runs in the league and posting the third-highest slugging percentage. As Ian Desmond, the most productive member of the October offense, put it, "We weren't the best team in baseball for no reason."
But the Nationals have recorded just two extra-base hits, hitting for a reasonable average but converting opportunities at a paltry rate. Bryce Harper is just 1-for-15. Adam LaRoche and Kurt Suzuki are both 1-for-11. Morse and Jayson Werth are 3-for-12.
"I think you have to go back and look at individual at-bats," said LaRoche, who believes his team may be pressing. "When you're down a few runs, you want to drive some in. You can get a little anxious and try to take more than they give you. Later in the game, that was probably the case."
Inexperience could also be playing a role. Werth recalled one of his first playoff appearances in 2008, when the Phillies played in front of a deafening crowd -- noisemakers and all -- in Milwaukee. In part because they could not bring themselves to focus, Werth said, the Phils lost that game -- though they later recovered to win the World Series.
"There can be points in the postseason that stun you," he said.
If the Nats are stunned, they must find the antidote quickly. Another inadequate performance with runners in scoring position could spell their end.
"Our lineup, [Nos.] 3-4-5, and really one through seven, you can compare that to any team in baseball and I'll take our lineup," Werth said. "So when we get up there with our guys on base, I feel good about the spot we're in with situational hitting and all that stuff. Obviously, we didn't get the hit and we really haven't gotten the hit the whole series. But it doesn't matter.
"We may be down a bit, but I don't feel like we're out of anything."