The Nationals planned to board a plane at noon Saturday after learning their opponent. They won the regular season series with the Cardinals, 4-3. But in the last meeting between the teams, a three-game series at Busch Stadium last week, the Cardinals won twice, outscoring Washington, 26-12. St. Louis has won eight of its past 11 games overall.
During the playoffs, the zombie Cardinals come to life. Last season, they snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the season and won a World Series. This season, they secured the second wild-card spot on the penultimate day and topped a Braves team that was six wins clear of the Cards. St. Louis boasts a potent offense and strong pitching, good enough for the NL’s second-best run differential during the regular season.
The Nationals could benefit from not having to face the Cardinals’ top starter, Kyle Lohse, twice in the next round. Lohse started Friday’s game, ate up 52
3 innings, struck out six and handed the ball to Matheny with a 3-2 lead. To get there, he overcame a strange sequence with two outs in the second inning.
Lohse fired a low, inside fastball that Braves backup catcher David Ross swung through and missed. It would have ended the at-bat. But timeout, seemingly called by Ross, was requested and granted during the windup. Ross hammered the next pitch into the stands for a two-run home run and a 2-0 Atlanta lead.
The Braves unraveled in the fourth inning when Jones scooped up a potential double-play groundball from Holliday and fired a wild throw to second base. With two runners on, Cardinals cleanup hitter Allen Craig doubled to ignite a rally that put the Cardinals up 3-2.
In the same inning, Simmons killed a Braves rally when he veered nearly three feet outside the base path on a suicide squeeze with two runners on base and one out. He was called out for interference.
The Braves further collapsed in the seventh. Uggla threw a ball nearly 20 feet wide of first base on a routine groundball to start the inning. Simmons misplayed a grounder and made a wild throw home. First baseman Freddie Freeman made little attempt to chase down a ball hit between him and reliever Johnny Venters. The Cardinals pushed their lead to 6-2.
The Braves gave themselves chances to trim the deficit, fittingly with Jones up to bat in the bottom of the ninth. But they couldn’t overcome their poor defense and the controversial infield fly call in the eighth.
“I’m not willing to say that that particular call cost us the ballgame,” Jones said. “Ultimately, three errors cost us the ballgame, mine probably being the biggest.”