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Solid young core will help Nats bounce back Columnist @TracyRingolsby
WAS View Full Game Coverage HINGTON -- The Washington Nationals had a season to remember.

It, however, came to an end they will have to work to forget.

And it won't be easy.

In the postseason for only the second time since the franchise began as the Montreal Expos in 1969 and the first time in 31 years, the Nationals were within an out of advancing to the National League Championship Series on Friday.

Twice closer Drew Storen was within a strike of closing out a victory in the first postseason series played in the nation's capital in 79 years. In the end, however, the Nats struck out, becoming the first team in postseason history to blow a six-run lead in a winner-take-all showdown.

St. Louis 9, Washington 7.

"It was a great year," said manager Davey Johnson. "We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson -- learn from it, have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther."

Bad natitude
Over the past 14 seasons, only two teams that have finished with the best regular-season record have gone on to win the World Series.
Season Team Record Playoff result
1999 Braves 103-59 Lost WS, 4-0
2000 Giants 97-65 Lost NLDS, 3-1
2001 Mariners 116-46 Lost ALCS, 4-1
2002 A's 103-58 Lost ALDS, 3-2
Yankees 103-58 Lost ALDS, 3-1
2003 Braves 101-61 Lost NLDS, 3-2
Yankees 101-61 Lost WS, 4-2
2004 Cardinals 105-57 Lost WS, 4-0
2005 Cardinals 100-62 Lost NLCS, 4-2
2006 Mets 97-65 Lost NLCS, 4-3
Yankees 97-65 Lost ALDS, 3-1
2007 Red Sox 96-66 Won WS, 4-0
Indians 96-66 Lost ALCS, 4-3
2008 Angels 100-62 Lost ALDS, 3-1
2009 Yankees 103-59 Won WS, 4-2
2010 Phillies 97-65 Lost NLCS, 4-2
2011 Phillies 102-60 Lost in NLDS, 3-2
2012 Nationals 98-64 Lost in NLDS, 3-2
The score is seared into the memory of the Nationals and the Nationals Park record-setting crowd of 45,966, which went from celebration to silence in the course of four batters in the top of the ninth.

"A learning process?" repeated Storen. "Not yet. It could be a learning process, but we have to work through a few things first."

So many good things happened to the Nats during a season in which they bounced back from eight consecutive non-winning seasons to win a franchise-record 98 regular-season games, the most in the Majors.

But the end provided a sobering time of reflection, not a championship celebration.

"We appreciate what we did," said Tyler Clippard, who gave up a leadoff home run to Daniel Descalso to open the eighth, which cut the Nationals' lead to 6-5. "But it's going to take a month or so to get to that point.

"This experience was new to a lot of us, and it has put in our heads what we need to do to get where we want to get next year. We have had to grow up in a hurry."

Before this year, only four members of the Nats' 25-man postseason roster had appeared in a playoff game. Now the list is crowded.

"St. Louis has proven if a team can get the job done, it can get it done," said Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. "They won the World Series last year. They had a leg up on us in experience. Next year, we'll have the experience on our side."

The defending World Series-champion Cardinals chipped away at a 6-0 lead the Nats built with three-run rallies in the first and third innings. St. Louis scored the final four runs off Storen, who, after giving up a leadoff double to Carlos Beltran to open the ninth, got Matt Holliday to ground out and struck out Allen Craig.

Storen, however, issued back-to-back walks to Yadier Molina and David Freese, and then back-to-back singles to Descalso and Pete Kozma, a two-run lead turning into a two-run deficit.

"This is about a team, not any individual," said Clippard. "To have a game end like that ... it was bad. But it is not about who did what. It's about what we didn't get done."

Sure, Storen was on the mound at the end, but there was 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez on the mound at the start. He allowed the Cards' comeback to start in a nine-batter, three-walk fifth that included a bases-loaded walk and a run-scoring wild pitch, cutting the lead to 6-3.

There was Game 3 starter Edwin Jackson coming out of the bullpen in the seventh, and giving up a run in an inning that began with a walk to Jon Jay.

And there was an offense that managed to add only one run over the final six innings, with Cardinals pitchers retiring the Nationals in order in four of those six innings.

But more than a nightmarish six innings, the Nats can look at this as a six-month foundation for a bright future.

There is not a 30-year-old in the rotation, nor in the core part of the bullpen. The only 30-plus players in the lineup are first baseman Adam LaRoche and right fielder Jayson Werth, both of whom will be 33 when the 2013 season opens.

They have all been a part of the joy ride in 2012, in which the Nationals spent all but 10 days in first place, and never fell from the top of the NL East after May 21. They had a winning record in every month of the season. Their 98 wins led baseball, and their 50-31 home-field record equaled the best in the NL. They even won a Major League-best 48 games on the road.

The one win they wanted, however, slipped away on a chilly night in Washington.

"It happened," said Desmond. "We have to live with it. You hate to say that, but what can we do? We've got to swallow this one down. We had a good year. We have a good team. There are too many positives for us to hang our heads over this. It will take some time, but we'll get over it."

There is, after all, always next year.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Washington Nationals