WASHINGTON -- The only sound in the Nationals' clubhouse came from teammates patting each other on the back, embracing one last time before the long offseason to come. Jayson Werth, still dressed in full uniform, sat at his locker with a blank stare on his face. Bryce Harper held his head in his hands and ran them through his hair. Max Scherzer spoke in a hushed tone and fought back tears.
It's as if they were all still processing this abrupt ending to the 2016 season they thought would have so many more chapters.
:: NLDS: Dodgers vs. Nationals coverage ::
The Nats had reached this 2016 postseason by dispelling the bitter taste left in their mouths from the end of the '15 campaign, racing out to 95 victories and their third National League East division title in the past five years. But for the third time, the Nationals could not advance past the NL Division Series. The season ended with their heartbreaking 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS on Thursday night at Nationals Park.
This loss felt different because these Nationals thought this team felt different.
They had overcome injuries to Wilson Ramos and Stephen Strasburg, stormed back from deficits against Clayton Kershaw, put together quality at-bat after at-bat, and their bullpen had been masterful. Still, they got the same result, another first-round exit and an early offseason to consider what might have been.
"I don't know," Werth said. "I don't know. Words are not really coming to me to describe it. It's pretty heavy. It's going to take some time to digest."
Still, no Washington baseball team has won a postseason series since 1924. These Nationals played better in almost every way than their counterparts in 2012 and '14, but they were outlasted by the Dodgers, who were just a little bit better to win Game 5.
"I think these are the most difficult games to win. Just every at-bat, every pitch, it seemed like it was important," Kershaw said. "The at-bats that the Nationals had the entire series, you know, it just felt like it was a constant 2-2, foul off three pitches, seven-pitch at-bats. You know, Harper, he might not have gotten a ton of hits, but the at-bats that he had the whole time; Werth, the at-bats that he had the whole time; obviously [Daniel] Murphy -- best hitter on the planet -- and just up and down the lineup. It just was a grind to get through."
The Dodgers captured this decisive Game 5 in part because of their innovative pitching decisions. They used their setup man to get out of a jam in the third inning, their closer in the seventh inning and their ace to close out the game in the ninth. And even still, these resilient Nationals almost found a way to pull off a comeback.
"That's probably one of the craziest -- if not the craziest -- game I've ever been a part of in my career, in my life," Scherzer said. "Man, this is a tough one to be on the wrong side of."
The Nationals got here because of their consistency throughout the season.
They achieved a winning record every month under first-year manager Dusty Baker. They have a legitimate candidate to win the NL MVP Award (Murphy), NL Cy Young Award (Scherzer) and NL Rookie of the Year Award (Trea Turner). Strasburg got off to the best start of his career and Tanner Roark finished off a breakout season that established him as a top-of-the-rotation starter. They had six players finish with at least 20 home runs.
"I think the team that we have, we could've done some things that nobody could've done," Harper said. "That's a great Dodgers team over there pushing the right button, and they just got us."
And now the 2016 offseason comes earlier than anyone in the Nationals' clubhouse expected, with more time to consider a painful loss and another postseason wound to use as motivation to eventually get over the hump.
"You have to persevere," Baker said. "That's the story of life. You know, it's how you deal with the down times and how you deal with pain. And if you just keep persevering, then something will happen, something good will happen. You can't stop trying. You can't stop trying to reach your goal."