The specter of last October hovered Monday night over the Washington Nationals, the coincidences giving them no choice but to flash back. The chill of late fall accompanied the St. Louis Cardinals’ return to Nationals Park, and a tense nine innings made the postseason feel far closer than five months away. The Nationals faced down their playoff demons. Maybe they can defeat them Tuesday night.
The Cardinals topped the Nationals, 3-2, in the teams’ first meeting since the Nationals’ wrenching loss in last October’s National League Division Series. The night brought back memories, most of them bad. Only one sport would have a twisted enough sense of humor to present Davey Johnson another prime chance to intentionally walk Pete Kozma. One sport would have the cosmic sense of timing that forced Drew Storen back into the closer’s role for a night.
“It’s baseball,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “You’re going to see a lot of the same stuff on a lot of different days.”
Lately, it has been a lot of the same for the Nationals. Fifth starter Dan Haren continued his troubling start despite five encouraging innings, unable to record an out in the sixth. Cardinals 22-year-old Shelby Miller, meantime, held the Nationals to two runs over 62 / 3 innings, striking out eight and withstanding Anthony Rendon’s game-tying RBI double in the fourth inning, the 22-year-old’s first major league hit.
Haren, the right-handed veteran who signed for $13 million, fell to 1-3, his ERA settling at 7.63. The Nationals dropped to 10-9, but they insist on calm, for the same reason first baseman Adam LaRoche rejected the parallel between Monday and last October. “Not in April,” he said.
“Nobody’s panicked in here,” Haren said. “We’re kind of just treading water right now. We’re going to hit our stride. I’m going to be better. Everybody is going to be better. I think other people are more panicked than we are.”
During batting practice Monday, the Nationals’ video board showed a feature about Jayson Werth’s walk-off home run in Game 4 of the NLDS, complete with an extended interview with Werth. By the cage and in the outfield, Cardinals players craned their necks to watch.
“You don’t forget anything like that series, especially that last game,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said. “I know that they think about it as well. You try and learn from the past and when you have a good memory, it was obviously something many of us will never see again.”
With one out in the third inning, The crowd doused Kozma with boos as he walked from the on-deck circle and dug into the right-handed batter’s box. Kozma had last stood in that dirt on Oct. 12, 2012, the night his two-out, two-strike single in the top of the ninth off Storen ended the Nationals’ season and sent the Cardinals to the NLCS. Washington gave him a proper villain’s welcome.
“That’s respect,” Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig said. “That’s an honor right there.”
And then Kozma, that pest, made the announced crowd of 27,263 hate him just a little more. He flared a high-and-outside fastball into shallow right, not much different from the hit that won Game 5. Three hitters later, Craig pounded a two-run double off the center field fence, just out of Denard Span’s reach as he leapt at the wall.
Miller dominated the Nationals for three innings, not allowing his first hit until Werth reached on an infield single to lead off the fourth. With two outs, Desmond mashed a 1-2 curveball off the center field fence, scoring Werth and bringing to the plate a player who was not involved in Game 5, or even in major league baseball until a day earlier.
Rendon walked to the plate 0 for 5 in his career with three strikeouts. In one at-bat, Rendon displayed the skills that make him the Nationals’ top prospect. He took three balls and fouled off three mid-90s fastballs before settling things with Miller on one more 95-mph fastball.
Rendon makes you think he isn’t swinging hard until the ball screams off his bat. He drilled a line drive to the right-center field gap. The ball, his first career hit, was rolled into the home dugout. The Nationals had tied it, 2-2.
“That’s the one thing you’re going to cherish for the rest of your life,” Rendon said. “You don’t get another one. The second one doesn’t count as much as the first one.”
After five encouraging innings, Johnson rewarded Haren by letting him hit for himself. In the sixth, with the game tied at 2, Haren wilted. Starting with hitting Matt Holliday with a fastball, Haren allowed four consecutive Cardinals to reach base. Johnson trudged to the mound with the bases loaded and no outs. He asked for the ball and waved to the bullpen, asking for Craig Stammen.
“I gotta be better,” Haren said. “No one’s more frustrated than I am.”
Stammen walked into an impossible situation, but one suited for his hard sinkers. Jon Jay grounded one to LaRoche, who fired home to Kurt Suzuki before getting back to first for a 3-2-3 double play.
Baseball, apparently, could not decide if it wanted to be cruel or funny, and so it split the difference: Here came Kozma with first base open and the pitcher on deck.
It was not the same situation as last October, when Kozma came to bat with closer Jason Motte waiting behind him. Then, Johnson made the much-debated choice to pitch to him, and Kozma delivered the game-winning hit.
“All of that did flash before my mind when it was all coming up,” Johnson said, grinning.
This time, Johnson held up four fingers. Kozma took his base. Stammen dispatched Miller in five pitches and Stammen had walked over a landmine without a scratch.
In January, the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract to become their new closer. Monday, though, provided a slice of ironic timing, verified by the single cigar placed before the game in every player’s locker and on Johnson’s desk. Soriano had stayed in New York to be with his wife, who gave birth to Rafael Jr. Storen would close.
The Nationals trailed entering the ninth, but down only one Johnson turned to Storen. Of course, Kozma led off. Storen did not make the connection, or at least would not admit to it.
“The guy who stands up there, I’m going to want to strike him out regardless of who it is or whatever the situation,” Storen said. “That did not cross my mind. If it was, I shouldn’t be out there.”
Storen struck him out with a 1-2 slider, then retired the Cardinals in order. In the midst of another loss, it was one small victory for the Nationals. It was not enough, though, to take away the sting.