ST. LOUIS — For two months now, the Nationals knew they faced a near-impossible task, trying to make up what at their nadir was a 15 1/2-game deficit in the NL East and a 9-game deficit in the NL Wild Card race.
Yet there they stood Sunday morning, with an opportunity to move to within 3 games of a postseason berth entering the final week of play, an improbable, last-gasp rally looking at least like a distinct possibility at long last.
Even after splitting a doubleheader with the Marlins, the Nationals still had a glimmer of life Monday night as they battled down to the wire with the Cardinals, while elsewhere the Pirates and Reds were engaged in their own dogfights.
And then, in the span of 11 frantic — and, for the Nationals, torturous — minutes, it all came grinding to a halt.
The Pirates pulled off a dramatic 2-1 win in Chicago. The Reds beat the Mets 3-2 in extra innings. And the Nats went down quietly to St. Louis in the ninth inning, dropping a 4-3 ballgame that served as the final nail in their 2013 coffin.
World Series or bust? We now know the definitive answer to that statement made by Davey Johnson 10 months ago.
"We dug our own hole," the departing manager said, "and we just couldn't dig out of it."
That hole proved far too deep, though the Nationals certainly tried their best to climb all the way back out the top. They took the field on Aug. 9 with a 54-60 record, a full 15 1/2 games behind the Braves in the division, 9 games behind the Reds for the final Wild Card berth.
Over the next six weeks, they went on the kind of sustained tear everyone expected from this team way back in April, winning 29 of 40 games to at minimum make Pittsburgh and Cincinnati sweat into the season's final week.
Deep down, the Nationals knew how long the odds were. But they tried to convince themselves it was somehow possible, right up until the moment it no longer was.
"You never consider it," Johnson said of elimination. "I didn't consider it. Something good was going to happen here, like it did last year."
The 2012 Nationals won a league-best 98 games and captured their first-ever division title. The 2013 Nationals won't even reach the 90-win mark, done in by a sluggish first half and perhaps the weight of sky-high expectations placed on them from every corner of the baseball world.
"We created this expectation, nobody else," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Two years ago, you would've said 'Washington Nationals: postseason,' people would've laughed you out of town. The guys who are in here, for the most part, are the guys that created this atmosphere, created the expectations. And I'm proud to be a part of that."
That didn't make official elimination easy for anyone to accept. Inside a dead-silent clubhouse at Busch Stadium, Bryce Harper sat at his locker, still in full uniform nearly 45 minutes after the final out had been recorded.
"I don't want to get in the shower or anything," Harper said. "It sucks. We want to make the playoffs, and that's that. You play the whole year to try to get deep in the playoffs, October, November, and see if you can get to the World Series. It's a bummer we didn't get there."
That the end came here, of all places, and against the Cardinals, of all teams, was both fitting and an extra knife to the gut. This is the club that ruined the Nationals' first-ever postseason party one year ago, and the sting of that Game 5 NLDS loss loomed over this entire season, even if few wanted to admit it.
"I don't think that had anything to do with it," Johnson said. "That's water over the dam, water under the bridge, whatever you want to call it. I think we had a few little shortcomings, and we didn't know how to overcome them. You can put that on me."
The Nationals will have a full winter to contemplate what happened and dissect why it happened. They'll take solace in their torrid play over the season's final six week, but they'll also wonder what might have been had they simply played like that at any point in the previous 4 1/2 months.
Above all, they'll head home knowing a talented roster and a confident manager guarantee nothing. The Nationals had every reason to believe they'd reach October this year, but it takes more than conviction to actually get there.
"Just goes to show us it's tough to make the playoffs," Adam LaRoche said. "A lot of things got to go right. You have to play consistent baseball. It's not easy."