They packed themselves into Nationals Park on a gorgeous Saturday night, the second-largest gathering in the stadium's history, and for 2 hours and 35 minutes they waited anxiously for an opportunity to explode.
Even as Jon Niese posted zero after zero on the scoreboard, the sellout throng of 42,662 sensed the Nationals would eventually do something at the plate. This team had come from behind too many times and scored too many runs lately to believe another rally wasn't forthcoming, a sentiment shared by those inside the dugout.
"Put us in that situation," Edwin Jackson said, "more times than not we come through."
Except this time they didn't. The big hit never came. And by night's end, the Nationals were left scratching their heads at a 2-0 loss to the Mets that had to rank among their most frustrating of the season.
"Wasn't a sloppy game," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Just offensively we got shut down. Defense was fine. Not a lot of terrible at-bats. Just one of those nights."
Perhaps it was just one of those nights for a Nationals lineup that rarely has been carved up the way Niese and two New York relievers did in this one. But when it happened on the same night Jackson was absolutely brilliant on the mound, it was perhaps a tougher pill to swallow.
The veteran right-hander blew away the Mets with a deadly cutter-slider combo that left nearly every opposing hitter flailing away with little chance of making contact. He recorded a season-high 11 strikeouts, nine of them swinging. All told, he recorded 21 swinging strikes, matching Stephen Strasburg's June 20 start against the Rays for the most by any Nationals pitcher this season.
"I'll tell ya, Jackson's been good all year," manager Davey Johnson said. "That was probably the most dominant I've seen him pitch."
Yet when the seventh inning arrived with nary a run tallied by either club, Jackson still had no margin for error. Which made his two subsequent errors especially disheartening.
It began with a five-pitch walk to David Wright, the last of which nearly took the slugger's head off. Moments later, Jackson grooved a first-pitch fastball to Ike Davis and then watched as the Mets cleanup hitter sent the ball flying into the left-field bullpen for a two-run homer.
"You've got a guy that goes up there and shuts them down like he did, he probably threw less bad pitches than Niese," LaRoche said. "I mean hittable pitches. And one of them happened to leave the park. It's tough."
Seven days earlier, Jackson departed a ragged start in Arizona having allowed five runs in 5 23 innings yet walked away with a win. This time, he departed after seven innings of two-hit ball yet walked away with a loss.
"Tonight, Niese was the better pitcher," he said. "He came out and held us scoreless, and their bullpen did the same. I gave up two runs and we lost."
The Nationals didn't even mount any serious threats against Niese, scattering five hits over his 7 13 innings. But they came up to bat in the ninth feeling good about their chances for a last-ditch rally, with the heart of their lineup due up and a closer with a 6.06 ERA on the mound in Frank Francisco.
And when Ryan Zimmerman led off by scorching a line drive toward the right-field corner, the sellout crowd finally had reason to perk up. Zimmerman was sure the ball would ricochet off the wall for a double, and the Nationals would bring the tying run to the plate in the form of cleanup hitter Michael Morse.
Then he saw right fielder Mike Baxter emerge out of nowhere to make a lunging catch before slamming into the fence, quashing the Nationals' last hope for a game-winning rally.
"I have no idea where he was playing and why he was playing there," Zimmerman said. "Two-nothing, I don't know why you would play 'no doubles' defense. It's a good catch. I really don't know why he was there. But he got me out, so it worked."
Francisco then struck out Morse and got LaRoche to ground out, and that was that.
Some in the crowd quietly made their way toward the exits. Some remained in their seats for a postgame concert.
And inside the home clubhouse, the Nationals tried to figure out how they managed to get such a dominant performance out of their starting pitcher yet having to show for it by night's end.
"As far as being efficient with his pitches and working fast and getting strikeouts and groundballs ... probably as good as we've seen," LaRoche said. "Sucks to waste it like that."