NYTimesAnd the final moments of the opening round, which played out just past midnight Saturday morning in Washington, were perhaps the most unbelievable. The St. Louis Cardinals, the defending World Series champions, were two runs behind the Washington Nationals and one strike away from being dumped unceremoniously out of the playoffs. Minutes later, they were congregating on the mound at Nationals Park, bouncing up and down and celebrating an unthinkable 9-7 victory in front of 45,966 eerily silent fans. It happened so fast, it seemed difficult at first to process. “It’s a pretty incredible night,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said, “really almost hard to get your head around.” While Matheny appeared entranced in a pleasurable daze, the Nationals looked shellshocked. They spent all but a handful of days during the regular season atop the National League East and cruised into the playoffs with the most regular-season victories in baseball. Theirs was a fairy tale story of sorts, these upstarts, third-place finishers last year, who brought playoff baseball back to Washington for the first time since 1933. Their story was ultimately short-lived. It was so quiet inside the home clubhouse after the loss that the sound of players’ consoling hugs — palms and forearms pounding upon sunken shoulders — was clearly audible.

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