Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

With one key hit, Nationals overcome a nerve-wracking start

ST. LOUIS — Washington could not possibly have been reintroduced to postseason baseball, its tension, strategy, nervous implosions and its unexpected clutch heroes like Nationals rookie Tyler Moore, in a more dramatic comeback fashion than what erupted here Sunday.

This 3-2 Nationals win in Game 1 of the NL Division Series will always be remembered for one at-bat, one moment that combined the tactical wisdom of a 69-year-old manager with the grit of a kid from Mississippi who’s learned how to pinch-hit, out of late-season Nat necessity, even though he has only 156 major league at-bats.

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The 79-year wait may not have been long enough for the nation’s capital to adequately prepare for the frayed nerves and frustration, for the manic, heart-in-your-throat reality of playoff baseball. The Washington Nationals took the city on a seventh-month long joyride, and on Sunday, in one sun-drenched afternoon at Busch Stadium, they dragged it through a meat grinder. Nationals players Tyler Moore, Ryan Mattheus and Gio Gonzalez talk about the win following the game, in the locker room.

The 79-year wait may not have been long enough for the nation’s capital to adequately prepare for the frayed nerves and frustration, for the manic, heart-in-your-throat reality of playoff baseball. The Washington Nationals took the city on a seventh-month long joyride, and on Sunday, in one sun-drenched afternoon at Busch Stadium, they dragged it through a meat grinder. Nationals players Tyler Moore, Ryan Mattheus and Gio Gonzalez talk about the win following the game, in the locker room.

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That two-out two-strike two-run single, poked into right field by Moore off St. Louis lefty Marc Rzepczynski in the eighth inning, turned what looked like a 2-1 defeat for the Nats and a loss for wild starter Gio Gonzalez, into a glorious come-from-behind win against the defending world champion Cardinals.

Suddenly, with that one key hit on a sun-drenched bad-shadow day that was brutally unfair for all hitters, the Nats had overcome their own nerves, escaped a bases-loaded none-out Cardinals rally in the bottom of the seventh, and won exactly the kind of tight postseason game that defines October success.

Now every flaw can be forgiven and spun, as victors always rewrite their own history, into key pieces of the triumph. Gonzalez’s wildness, with four walks and a wild pitch in the second inning giving the Cards all their runs as a gift — why that’s now been transformed by the alchemy of triumph into five innings of tough-it-out one-hit pitching.

What about Jayson Werth’s two inning-ending outs with the bases loaded? Who cares now? All that will be remembered in time is how Werth, it’s so convenient to be 6-foot-5, leaped above the right field fence in the sixth inning, sun in his eyes, wind blowing the long flyball over the fence, and stole a two-run homer from stunned Daniel Descalso. At the last instant, the shadow of a light standard blocked the sun and let him see the ball.

Now, instead of focusing on a few failures, the Nats can think of this first playoff win as a continuation of their 98-win excellence, their emergence as a young power. That’s how narrow a team’s postseason fate, even its sense of itself, can be. Without Moore, without his short flick of a swing, producing what he called “a flare out to right,” every event in this game would cast different shadows — and ominous ones for the Nats.

Now, instead of fretting over the unfairness of starting with two games on the road, the Nats suddenly realize that they have met every team’s goal — win one of the first two games in the other team’s park, some how, some way. Just don’t come home down 0-2. Now they can’t. If the Nats win Monday, when Jordan Zimmermann faces Jamie Garcia, it will be the Cardinals who face three games in D.C. and, perhaps, an early chilly winter.

Lets return to that key moment for which, in a sense, Washington has waited since 1933. The Nats had just escaped the bottom of the seventh inning when reliever Ryan Mattheus came in with the bases loaded and none out — then got three outs on two pitches. After a force at the plate on a grounder to short, Mattheus induced Yadier Molina to ground into a gorgeous ’round-the-horn double play, started by Ryan Zimmerman. That sent the Nats off the field jumping, with Mattheus pumping his fist.

In the top of the eighth, an error by rookie Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma and Ian Desmond’s third single of the day started a rally. A sacrifice bunt by Danny Espinosa advanced Desmond to second with Michael Morse holding at third. With two outs and men on second and third, Johnson sent his best pinch hitter to the plate, Chad Tracy, the veteran leader of the Goon Squad.

Tracy has a name in the game, a 27-homer season. Surely, Johnson would not pinch-hit for his best pinch hitter? Would he? So, Cards first-year Manager Mike Matheny did the logical, unassailable and fatal thing as he called on his only left-handed reliever, Rzepczynski, who is deadly against left-handed hitters, but ill-suited to righties.

Johnson, the manager who always builds confidence, believes in all 25 of his men, and never flinches from the implications of the bench that he has built, called for Moore. In his mind, Tracy and Moore were roughly equal hitters, but Rzepczynski (4.24 ERA) was, against a righty, inferior to the Cards power-arm right-handers that might face Tracy.

“I thought he was going to leave [hard-throwing] Mitchell Boggs in there to face Tracy,” Johnson said. “But I said, ‘If he bring in Rep. . . whatever his name is, I’m going with Moore. . . . I knew I controlled the matchup no matter what they did.”

But you only control it if you’re willing to trust the kid. “That’s been our strength all year,” Johnson said of the youngsters who have filled in for injured players.

In recent weeks, when a bout of rare good health has given the Nats a full lineup, Moore has gotten little playing time. He’s sat next to veterans and asked, “How do you pinch-hit?” In the eighth, he talked with Mark DeRosa, who’s around for his brains even though he’s not on the roster. “They help me keep my heart rate down,” said Moore.

“They didn’t want to pitch to Tracy, our best pinch hitter,” Moore said. “I chased one pitch [for a foul]. I wanted to make him bring the ball more in my zone.” Finally, on a 2-2 pitch, Whatever His Name Is threw a good 93 mph sinker just off the outside corner. It just wasn’t quite good enough. With two outs, both flying Nats scored easily.

“Bases loaded, nobody out. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Matheny said of the failed seventh-inning uprising. “They made a couple of good plays and pitched their way out of it. We did have our opportunities.”

That will make this loss even harder to take for a veteran team that, after its miracle title run last season, knows just how vital this Game 1 truly was.

The question hanging over the Nationals all season has been: What happens when huge pressure arrives? Which players rise, which rattle? How many of each will there be? Do those cases of nerves or inexperience — or simply meeting emotions that have never before arisen within you — change at-bats, innings, entire games or the whole series?

And how would the Nats react to watching this rolling real-time test as it sweeps across the whole roster, testing one man after another whether at bat, on the mound or in the field?

If the Nats had lost, then Gonzalez’s wildness, Werth’s two failures with the bases loaded, a throwing error by Zimmerman and three strikeouts by Espinosa would be among the sins under examination. Instead, Werth’s home run robbery gets top billing. Zimmerman’s start of that tough-hop double play is remembered. And Espinosa got down a sacrifice bunt that left two runners in scoring position for Moore.

A few times a season, Gonzalez looks like a man in a small circular raft, exactly the size of the pitcher’s mound, who is drifting further and further out to sea as all his customary points of useful and comforting reference recede until they disappear. Leaving him lost and alone unless something comes to save him. This time, he returned to shore only two runs the worse for the scare.

“Gio got out of it and pitched pretty well,” Johnson said. “That’s what your ace does.”

No, that’s the rose-colored hue that Moore’s crucial hit casts over all other events.

If you have to wait almost forever, exactly 79 years to the day, to get back to the postseason, this is exactly the way to start.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

 
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