NLDS Game 3: Nationals leave themselves stranded

It could have been Adam LaRoche in the first, and he hit into a fielder’s choice. It might have been Danny Espinosa or Kurt Suzuki in the fourth, and they managed lazy fly balls. Michael Morse, with the bases juiced and the crowd finally buzzing in the fifth, fisted a ball to shallow right. Jayson Werth, an inning later, took a stay-alive swing that yielded a popup that didn’t even stay in fair ground.

The scoreboard said the Nationals had no chance Wednesday afternoon, that the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t allow them so much as a breath in what became an 8-0 romp in Game 3 of their National League Division Series. But before the lead became insurmountable, the Nationals put runners on base, advanced them into scoring position, and simply could not drive them in. They went 0 for 8 with runners on second and third, perhaps the most significant reason they find themselves on the brink of the offseason, facing elimination.

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“When you’re down a few runs, you want to drive some in,” LaRoche said. “I think you can get a little anxious then and take more than they give you. Probably later in the game, guys were trying to do a little extra to spark something.”

The spark, with the Nationals trailing two-games-to-one, has not been there. In three games, they have stranded 30 runners. They approach a must-win game now 3 for 24 with runners in scoring position. And they know there were a few opportunities against Cardinals right-hander Chris Carpenter, a veteran built for such situations, that they might have taken a blowout and made it a battle.

“We were just one bloop away from a totally different ballgame,” Werth said.

Start in the first, when they already trailed 1-0. Werth led off with a single, and an out later, Ryan Zimmerman reached on an error. Here came LaRoche, who drove in 100 runs in the regular season, hitting with two men on and just one down.

“You got to keep pouring it on,” LaRoche said.

Instead, they let Carpenter mop up the mess. LaRoche bounced harmlessly to second, and though he beat out the relay to avoid the double play, Carpenter went to work on Morse. With the count 2-1, Morse fouled off one cut fastball, then with two strikes fouled off a curve. Carpenter went back to the cutter, and Morse swung through it. It was just the end of one, and the Nationals were already 0 for 2 with runners in scoring position.

“We’re just not getting timely hits,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “We’re hitting the ball, and getting hits, but not at the right time.”

True enough, considering Desmond went 3 for 4 on Wednesday, and all three hits led off an inning. He singled in the second, was bunted to second, and stood there as Suzuki grounded out and Edwin Jackson, the pitcher, popped up. With one out in the fourth, he doubled to right-center, and never moved again, watching Carpenter easily dispatch Espinosa and Suzuki on routine fly balls.

“I don’t attribute it to being young or inexperienced,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “Just, you know, tip my hat to the other guys.”

Still, even as the Nationals tried to chase the game, there were two at-bats that might have completely overhauled it. In the fifth, with Carpenter working his pitch count into the 80s as he protected a 4-0 lead, LaRoche faced an 0-2 count, took a pair of curveballs, fouled off a two-strike pitch, and drew a walk to load the bases. Up came Morse.

“I think our lineup, 3-4-5 — actually, 1 through 7 — you can compare that to any team in baseball, and I’ll take our lineup,” Werth said. “So when we get our guys up there with guys on base, I definitely feel good about the spot we’re in and the situational hitting — all that stuff.”

Carpenter started Morse with a curveball, and Morse whiffed. He then took a curveball to even the count 1-1. Carpenter followed with a biting sinker.

“Got in on me a little bit,” Morse said.

He swung, and could do nothing with it. The ball floated into shallow right, an easy out, an opportunity killed.

“If he doesn’t get that sinker in a little bit. . . ” Zimmerman said.

If. There was, still, another chance. When pinch hitter Steve Lombardozzi singled with two outs in the sixth, Carpenter was done. Werth came to the plate with two out and two on, and flame-throwing right-hander Trevor Rosenthal coming on in relief. Rosenthal throws his fastball 100 mph, but keeps things interesting with a curveball if he gets ahead in the count.

“You don’t know if he throws [the curve] a lot, or he throws it for a strike much,” Zimmerman said. “But once you get two strikes, you have to at least honor it a little bit. And when you have to honor another pitch with a guy throwing 100, it’s pretty tough.”

So Rosenthal started Werth with a pair of fastballs for strikes. The next pitch reached 100, and Werth fouled it off. Rosenthal then came with the curve, floating in by comparison at 82 mph.

“I’d like to just foul that ball off there,” Werth said. He did, but not enough. It landed in the mitt of Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig in foul ground, the Nationals’ eighth and final at-bat with a runner in scoring position. They never got another hit the rest of the day.

 
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