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The Levels of Losing, DC Sports Edition (Part 4 of 4)

After another playoff disappointment from the Washington Capitals, I’ve started to explore some of the biggest losses in Washington, DC sports since 1992, the year a DC team last won a title in any of the big four professional sports leagues using Bill Simmons’ “Levels of Losing 2.0” standard.  For Levels 16 through 5, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

And down the stretch we come…

LEVEL 4: THE GUILLOTINE

This one combines the devastation of The Broken Axle Game with sweeping bitterness and hostility. … Your team’s hanging tough (hell, they might even be winning), but you can feel the inevitable breakdown coming, and you keep waiting for the guillotine to drop, and you just know it’s coming — you know it — and when it finally comes, you’re angry that it happened and you’re angry at yourself for contributing to the debilitating karma. … These are the games when people end up whipping their remote controls against a wall or breaking their hands while pounding a coffee table. … Too many of these and you’ll end up in prison.

Here’s another level in which I’ll have to include two games, each from different sports.

Case 1: Seattle 24, Washington 14 (2012-13 NFC Wild Card Round)

Highlights

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DC buzzed with excitement when it was announced that the Rams traded the 2nd overall pick in the 2012 draft to the Redskins with the expectation that the team would take Robert Griffin III. It was thought that they would finally have the franchise quarterback they’d been looking for. It also seemed like no sooner than the trade was announced, independent clothing designers were already working on churning out RG3 hats, shirts, and anything else his likeness could go on.

And his first year here lived up to the hype and more. Griffin won Offensive Rookie of the Year that year, and he led the team to a 10-6 record and its first NFC East title since 1999.

In the Wild Card game against Seattle, Washington cruised in its first two possessions to two touchdowns, but late on that second drive, Griffin rolled to his right and attempted a pass as he was hit out of bounds.  He got up and returned to the huddle with a much more pronounced limp than before, favoring his right knee, which already had a bulky brace draped over it.  Clearly, something wasn’t right.  After the touchdown, he was checked out by the team trainers and doctors.  Apparently, it wasn’t enough of a concern to pull him from the game.

Griffin had initially suffered his injury on the final drive in regulation in Week 14.  Kirk Cousins replaced him and tied the score with a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion run, and the ‘Skins would go on to win in overtime.   Cousins would also start and win the following game before RG3 returned the following week.  Even with Griffin playing well enough to lead the team to the playoffs, his knee was still a ticking time bomb.

Washington’s offense sputtered in the ensuing possessions.  Griffin’s biggest asset all season had been his mobility, and the knee brace and apparent aggravation of the injury all but sapped that away.  Not only that, but his accuracy suffered now that he couldn’t properly plant his back leg to throw.  After gaining 129 yards on their first two possessions, the offense gained just 74 yards for the rest of the game against Seattle’s vaunted defense.  As a result, all Washington’s defense could do is to merely try to hang onto its lead for dear life, which they tried to do through the first three-and-a-half quarters before the Seahawks broke through with the go-ahead touchdown.

The guillotine would finally drop on the ensuing drive.  Griffin reached to try to pick up a bad shotgun snap from Will Montgomery, and his right knee finally gave out, turning inwards as if he were trying to do the Stanky Legg, and he crumbled to the ground.  FedExField fell silent as the future of the franchise flashed before everyone’s eyes.  Seattle would put the game away with a field goal.  The diagnosis?  Torn ACL and LCL.  (Coincidentally, it’s the same knee that he had suffered a torn ACL in at Baylor in 2009.)  For the next several months after the game, the offseason drama of who was at fault for leaving Griffin on the field while visibly injured, as well as the speculation of whether he would be ready for the following season, raged on, and RG3’s career would never be the same in Washington again.

Case 2: New York Rangers 3, Washington 2 (2012 NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 5)

Yep, you guessed it, another hockey example.  Just comes to illustrate the state of the Capitals and DC sports in general when Caps games comprise of many of these in the countdown.

With the series tied 2-2, this was a critical game in the series, and a Caps’ victory would have given them much-needed confidence to close out the series on home ice.

Washington took the lead early on in the 3rd period and despite being outshot the whole game, it looked like they were about to hold on and steal one on the road as the game clock inched towards 0:00 and the Rangers emptied their net.  With 28.9 seconds left, Joel Ward, who had scored the series-winning goal in overtime against Boston the previous round (and, in turn, turned Twitter into Stormfront for a short while), whacks Carl Hagelin in the face with his stick right after the faceoff and takes a four-minute double-minor penalty after Hagelin was bleeding from the hit.  The 21.3 seconds from victory now seem like an eternity with Washington trying to stave off a 6-on-4 situation.  But the Rangers win the draw, keep the puck in their offensive zone, shoot it on net, and Mike Richards gets the rebound and scores the game-tying goal with 6.6 secconds left.  Wow.

And because the goal was scored within the first two minutes of the double-minor, Ward still had to serve the last two minutes in the ensuing overtime session.  The Rangers get another offensive zone faceoff with the man advantage, and Marc Staal shoots it from the right point.  The puck deflects off the stick of Brooks Laich and past Holtby for the game-winner.

LEVEL 3: THE STOMACH PUNCH

Now we’ve moved into rarefied territory, any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. … Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. … Always haunting, sometimes scarring. … There are degrees to The Stomach Punch Game, depending on the situation. … For instance, it’s hard to top Cleveland’s Earnest Byner fumbling against Denver when he was about two yards and 0.2 seconds away from sending the Browns to the Super Bowl.

Either of these two games by themselves could have qualified for this, but in my mind, they’ll forever be linked together for no other reason than the simultaneity of the games and for what was at stake for each team and for the DC sports fanbase as a whole.

Case 1: Atlanta 82, Washington 81 (2015 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 5)

Case 2: New York Rangers 2, Washington 1 (2015 NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 7)

2015 was one of the most successful years for DC pro sports as a whole, with three teams qualifying for the playoffs.  While the Wizards and Capitals have popped into the playoffs here and there in the last few decades, it’s been rare for both teams to reach the playoffs in the same season.  The spring of 2015 was the second time since 1988 that both teams reached the playoffs in the same season and the first since 2008.  The great thing about multiple teams in the playoffs?  If one team fails, you can hitch your wagon to the other team.  So one could imagine how euphoric (or relieved, for some) DC sports fans were feeling when both teams advanced to the second round for the first time ever after the Wizards swept Toronto and the Caps took out the Islanders in seven.

On the flip side, there’s also the chance of a double dose of disappointment, and if you’ve made it this far into this series, you probably know where I’m going with this.

May 13, 2015.  Both the Wizards and Capitals have critical playoff games ahead.  For the Caps, it’s a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.  They led the series 3-1 before dropping Games 5 and 6 (sound familiar?).  Each game in the series had been decided by one goal, so to say that this series has been evenly matched is an understatement.  The Wizards are in Atlanta for a pivotal Game 5 against the Hawks.  With the series tied at 2-2, John Wall will return after a three-game absence due to a fracture in his left hand.  His presence would be needed.

7:45 p.m.: The puck drops at MSG on NBCSN.

8:03: Underway in Atlanta as the Wizards get the opening tip.  Game is on TNT.

8:09: Goal, Capitals.  Alex Ovechkin receives a pass in the slot from the left boards and beat Henrik Lundqvist glove-side with 7:10 to go in the 1st. 1-0 Washington.

8:18: The Caps lose possession of the puck on their power play late in the first, and Rick Nash is in the clear on a breakaway chance, but Holtby stands tall and makes the save.

8:23: First period ends in Manhattan.  Caps still lead 1-0 but will start the 2nd shorthanded.

8:27: The first quarter ends in Atlanta with the Hawks leading 23-19.

8:45: After the Caps fans’ whipping boy Mike Green gets exposed again on a penalty, Derick Brassard’s shot hits the post.  The Capitals would kill the penalty.

8:51: Within a minute of leaving the penalty box, Green goes brain dead again and commits another penalty, but this time, the Rangers make them pay.  They keep the puck in Washington’s zone, and J.T. Miller sends a perfect diagonal pass to Kevin Hayes at the left post to tap in and tie the game at 1-1.  Because of course Green would have a big hand in the opposing team’s playoff success.

8:53: Back in Atlanta, the Wizards take the lead on a Wall jumper, as his return to the game had jumpstarted the comeback effort.

9:00: Paul Pierce drains a three with 29 seconds left in the half to cap a 19-4 scoring run and stretch the lead to 47-39.  The Hawks would close the half with a bucket to cut the lead to six.

9:17: The horn sounds at the Garden and after a fruitless Capitals power play (and appeals from Caps fans for another penalty), the score is still tied at 1-1.

9:22: With the second half afoot in Atlanta, Nene hits a jumper to give the Wiz a 10-point lead, their largest thus far.

9:42: The Hawks battle all the way back and take a 61-58 lead with a 10-0 run with the Wiz missing eight consecutive shots.  The third quarter would end with the score 63-62 Atlanta.

9:44: Evgeny Kuznetsov nearly puts the Caps ahead but his backhand shot misses the net after beating Henrik Lundqvist.  Golden opportunity missed.

9:54: Bradley Beal gives the Wizards the lead again with the first points of the fourth quarter.

9:55: Brooks Orpik of the Capitals just crushes Dan Boyle with a big but clean hit (with Rangers fans disagreeing, obviously).  Boyle had to leave the game.

10:04: Beal would score again to give Washington a nine-point lead with 6:15 left, capping a 13-1 run in this strange game of dueling scoring runs and lack of scoring altogether.  The defense did its job as well, forcing four Atlanta turnovers and 10 straight missed shots.

10:16: You guessed it.  Another lead change in Atlanta amid concurrent scoring runs/droughts, despite both teams shooting poorly.  Al Horford hits a long two-pointer and the Hawks are ahead 74-73.  They’d go on a 14-0 scoring run with the Wiz missing seven in a row to make it 78-73.

10:17: Oh boy.  Game 7 of the Caps’ series will have to be decided in overtime after a period of few chances.  This confirms that this will be the second 7-game series in NHL history where every game is decided by one goal (the other? Caps-Bruins in 2012).  Nothing more exciting in sports than an overtime Game 7 in hockey, unless you’re a fan of one of the teams in the game, in which case there’s nothing more anxiety-inducing.  Even more so for the DC fans, as now they’re on the edge of their seats on two fronts.

10:27: Tie game in Atlanta! Wizards battle back to tie it with Marcin Gortat’s jump hook with 51.3 left.

10:32: After a defensive stop, Paul Pierce, who had been clutch his entire career (including when he “called ‘game'” on a game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game 3), has it poked away from him by Kyle Korver, leading to a 2-on-1 fastbreak with Horford and DeMarre Carroll playing hot potato with the ball until they get the basket, and Carroll finishes it to give the Hawks the lead with 14.9 left.

Meanwhile, the puck drops at MSG for the start of overtime.

10:35: …but Pierce would atone for the turnover on the next possession by draining a corner 3.  Wiz up 81-80.  8.3 on the clock.

10:36: Back in New York…Caps get the first real chance in overtime with a shot from Jay Beagle brushed aside by Lundqvist.

10:37: Quickly back to Atlanta.  On the ensuing Hawks possession, Dennis Schröder drives down the lane for the game-winning layup, but Wall swats it off the glass.  Nene looks like he’s in prime position to get the rebound, but he gets outmuscled by Horford who grabs the rebound and sticks in the dagger, giving the Hawks an 82-81 lead with 1.9 to go and the Wizards out of timeouts.  Wall’s halfcourt heave misses as time expires.  Gutted.

Up in New York at the same time, Holtby makes a save on Hagelin from the left circle.

10:47: the Caps ice the puck, and luckily it happens after the 10 minute mark of the overtime period, so the guys on the ice get a bit of a rest.

10:50: Rangers take the faceoff.  Dan Girardi’s shot saved.  Rebound to Derek Stepan.  Left circle.  Goal.  Game, set, season.  The fifth blown 3-1 series lead in Capitals history, the most of any team in the NHL.

Two gut-wrenching defeats in 13 minutes.  Now I know that Simmons used the term “Stomach Punch” to describe such a game, but this just feels like you’ve been kicked in the nuts with a steel-toe boot, and while you’re bent over belatedly protecting your manhood, that person wearing the boot kicks you in the shins and you just collapse to the ground in the fetal position.

LEVEL 2: THE GOOSE/MAVERICK TAILSPIN

Cruising happily through the baseball regular season, a potential playoff team suddenly and inexplicably goes into a tailspin, can’t bounce out of it and ends up crashing for the season. In “Top Gun,” the entire scene lasted for 30 seconds and we immediately moved to a couple of scenes in which Tom Cruise tried to make himself cry on camera but couldn’t quite pull it off. In sports, the Goose/Maverick Tailspin could last for two weeks, four weeks, maybe even two months, but as long as it’s happening, you feel like your entire world is collapsing. It’s like an ongoing Stomach Punch Game. And when it finally ends, you spend the rest of your life reliving it every time a TV network shows a montage of the worst collapses in sports history. Other than that, it’s no big deal.

Case: Washington Nationals, July 31-September 2015

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The Nationals and the Mets were battling atop the National League East all season, and they had traded places atop the division seven times heading into August.  For the Nationals, Bryce Harper took the next step in his ascension to stardom, posting NL-highs in home runs (42) and on-base-plus-slugging (1.109), en route to winning the NL MVP award.

Big-money signing Max Scherzer had an impressive first season with the team.  Some of his best pitching came in June, when he followed up a one-hitter (with the only hit coming in the 7th inning) with his first career no-hitter (in which he was one out away from a perfect game but wound up hitting the 27th batter).

Although Drew Storen converted 29 of 31 save opportunities and had a 1.73 ERA, Washington made a splash at the trade deadline, acquiring All-Star closer and one-time World Series champion Jonathan Papelbon to become the new closer, while Storen would be demoted to the 8th inning setup role.  Papelbon only agreed to be traded on the condition that he would continue to close games, so Storen was moved, despite his regular season success that year.  It was speculated that the acquisition was made for the playoffs in mind, as Storen struggled as the closer on two occasions at that stage already.  After the Nats traded their former setup man Tyler Clippard away before the season, they wanted a reliable arm to hold the lead for their closer.

Washington also weathered numerous injuries to Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, and Stephen Strasburg, and as Zimmerman, Werth, and Rendon returned to the lineup, the Nats were expected to keep control of the division, or at the very least, stay in the hunt with the just-as-impressive New York Mets.

July 31, 2015.  Washington, leading the NL East by three games, travels to Queens to take on the Mets, who made some big moves before the trade deadline to help their offense, which at the time had been struggling, despite their elite pitching staff.  The Mets took the first game of the series 2-1 in 12 innings on a walk-off homer from Wilmer Flores.  The Nats led the second game of the series 2-1 heading into the bottom of the 7th inning, but Matt Williams decides to leave righty pitcher Joe Ross in the game to face Lucas Duda, a left-handed hitter who had already homered off him earlier in the game.  Lo and behold, Duda goes yard again and ties the score.  His turn would come around in the bottom of the 8th inning and, facing lefty Matt Thornton, delivers a double to deep left field to give the Mets a 3-2 lead that they would hold onto to win.

The Mets would complete the sweep on the back of a 5-run third inning against Jordan Zimmermann and pull even with the Nats atop the NL East.  The Nats came back home for a seven-game homestand to face Arizona and Colorado, two teams which at the time were sub-.500, and they went 3-4.  Two of those games against the Rockies involved Storen giving up the deciding hits.  The first was a grand slam from Carlos Gonzalez, and the second was a two-run single from DJ LeMahieu that broke a 4-4 tie in the 8th.  This was the beginning of a mini-slump for Storen, and it would be fair to wonder if his demotion due to the Papelbon trade hurt his confidence.  The Nats had slipped to 1.5 games behind the Mets in the process.

Washington would go on a 10-game west coast road trip, and dropped two out of three against the Los Angeles Dodgers, getting shut out by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.  Things did not improve for the Nationals, suffering a four-game sweep to San Francisco, but they did rebound by winning two out of three in Colorado.  But now, the deficit was four games.  Suddenly, the playoff contenders had fallen to .500, and would fall below that mark after a loss when they got back home.

September came around, and the Nationals had a chance to cut into the Mets’ lead, which had shrunk to 4 from as many as 6.5 games.  The teams were due to face off in a three-game series at Nationals Park, which the Mets swept due in large part to late-inning bullpen struggles.  The bullpen faltered egregiously in the second game, as the Nats lost a 7-1 lead in the 7th inning when the Mets rallied for six runs, all with two out in the inning.  Suddenly, Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, and Storen couldn’t throw strikes, and the strikes they did throw were punished, including a three-run double from Yoenis Cespedes that contributed to the comeback.  Kirk Nieuwenhuis delivered the deathblow in the 8th inning when he homered against Papelbon.

Late-inning struggles struck again in the series finale, as homers from Kelly Johnson and Cespedes turned the game in New York’s favor.  Another sweep.  Seven games back.

Frustrations had started to boil in the Washington clubhouse.  Storen’s season came to a premature end after breaking his thumb in anger.  The Nationals would go 7-6 in the ensuing games, with a sweep against Baltimore at the end of that 13-game stretch.  The Mets’ division lead had only grown to 7.5 games, but time had all but run out for the Nats to gain ground on the frontrunners, and they were too far out of the Wild Card hunt to be a factor in that race.

On September 26, it was official.  The Mets mathematically clinched the NL East.  But just one day later, when you thought it couldn’t have gotten any worse…

And somehow, Williams, who claimed to have been unaware of the Papelbon-Harper fight, allowed Papelbon to return to the mound the next inning.  At that point, it was clear that Williams had lost the clubhouse.  Cue the debates at the time about who was right and who was wrong in what wound up being the most infamous image of the 2015 team.

Williams would be fired at the end of the season.  Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post summed up the Nationals’ collapse in greater detail in Part 3 of his series “Destiny Denied: The rise and fall of the 2015 Nationals.”  Storen would be traded to Toronto in the offseason, and you can say his downfall all started at the end of…

LEVEL 1: “THAT GAME”

Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. … One of a kind. … Given the circumstances and the history involved here, maybe the most catastrophic sports loss of our lifetime.  The only game that actually combined The Guillotine and The Stomach Punch. No small feat. Let’s just hope we never travel down that road again.

While this one isn’t nearly as massive on scale as the ’86 World Series, this one may have been the most heartbreaking in recent memory for DC sports fans both for what it could have been, and how it all unfolded.

Case: St. Louis 9, Washington 7 (2012 NLDS Game 5)

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For a city whose true passion has been NFL football, it is somewhat strange that the most devastating loss since 1992 involved its newest major pro sports team.

It has only been 11 years since the Washington Nationals played its first game in RFK Stadium since relocating from Montreal and filling a baseball void that spanned 33 years in DC.  After years of futility resulting in multiple high draft picks, the Nats became big-time contenders quickly, and expectations rose rapidly.  It all started to come together in the 2012 season when they won the NL East for the first time and had the best record in baseball.

But at first, the Nats struggled against the defending World Series champion Cardinals in the NLDS, falling behind 2 games to 1 and were one game away from elimination, but Jayson Werth gave the Nats new life in the series when he turned around a Lance Lynn fastball and sent it flying into the St. Louis bullpen for a walk-off, game-winning, season-saving home run, as described by Charlie Slowes in a radio call immortalized in the introductory montage for the team’s radio broadcasts.

And then Game 5 came around, and Washington jumped out to a 6-0 lead after three innings.  Of course, the Cardinals would not go quietly.  After all, it was just the previous year when they overcame a 10.5 game deficit in the NL Wild Card standings (in what just so happened to be the last year that each league only had one Wild Card berth) to get into the playoffs on the final day of the season.  That year, they made it all the way to the World Series where they later survived being down to their last strike twice in Game 6 to tie the score, and they would win on David Freese’s walk-off home run (with Joe Buck channeling his late father on the play-by-play), forcing a Game 7, which they would also win.  Would Game 5 be déjà vu for the Cardinals?

Gio Gonzalez labored through five innings and had given up three runs, and four other relievers trudged through the next three, having given up two runs in total.  But all that mattered was that Drew Storen would have a chance to close out the series in the 9th inning with a 7-5 lead.  Storen, who had been the closer the previous year, had reclaimed the role after recovering from elbow surgery that caused him to miss the first half of the season.

Carlos Beltran led off the inning with a double.  Matt Holliday grounded out, and Allen Craig struck out swinging.  Storen then had Yadier Molina, the potential tying run, down to his last strike with a 2-2 count.  Storen failed to get Molina to chase a breaking pitch in the dirt, and he missed high on a fastball with the next pitch, walking Molina.  Freese, the hero of the previous year’s World Series, came to the plate, and like Molina, he suddenly found himself and his team one strike away from elimination with a 1-2 count.  On the next pitch, Storen nearly strikes him out with a pitch similar to the one he tried to get Molina to chase, but Freese checked his swing just in time to stay in the at-bat.  Freese also drew a walk after two pitches out of the zone to load the bases.

Daniel Descalso wasted no time with his at-bat, swinging on the first pitch and hitting a sharp ground ball to Ian Desmond, who dove to try to make a play on it, but it bounced off him and into shallow center field, allowing two runs to score and tying the game at 7-7.  After Descalso stole second, Pete Kozma followed with a go-ahead two-run single to give the Cardinals a 9-7 lead which they would hold onto in the bottom of the 9th to complete an improbable comeback and stun many of the 45,966 fans at Nationals Park that night.

There seems to be a feeling that Washington willingly underachieved that season, considering the controversial decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg as the Nationals closed in on the division title. Before the season, the organization decided that Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John surgery August 2010, would have his innings limited all season, regardless of how well the team was doing.  Uncertainty over Strasburg’s postseason status continued to loom over the organization all season and even into the playoffs, where an arm like his could have helped.  Sure, his replacement Ross Detwiler pitched well in his only playoff start, but who is to say that Strasburg on the postseason roster wouldn’t have trickled down through the rest of the rotation and into the bullpen, allowing Davey Johnson more flexibility in close and late game situations?  Considering how difficult it is to win the World Series even with what looks like a team that will compete for playoff spots for years to come (just ask the Atlanta Braves of the ’90s), the idea of unfulfilled promise with regards to the 2012 team will linger in the minds of DC sports fans for years, especially if the Nats fail to win it all with this core.

A 6-0 lead after three innings.

One strike away.  Twice.

You can’t get much more agonizing than that.

Such encapsulates the incredulousness and paranoia of getting too attached to successful teams that Washington, DC sports fans have come to adopt.  Even if these moments aren’t nationally known by a nickname beginning with the word “The,” or aren’t associated with a stereotypically working-class populace, they still leave die-hard sports fans here yearning for postseason success that almost every city its size may have already experienced in the last 24 years.