It’s been seven years since Teddy won his first Presidents Race and the Nationals won an NL-best 98 games, giving the District its first taste of playoff baseball since 1933. The Nationals would enter their best-of-five series against the defending World Series champion Cardinals without the services of Stephen Strasburg, who pitched 159⅓ innings in his first full season after Tommy John surgery but was shut down in early September in the interest of reducing his risk of suffering another serious injury.
“The coming days, starting Sunday afternoon, should provide an agonizing, thrilling, exhausting level of uncertainty and tension that many fans don’t even know exists in sports, certainly not in baseball, a game that, in D.C., has been a sleepy endeavor for 79 years,” The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell wrote. “For relentless sensory bombardment, for hair-yanking twists of fortune, for sudden utterly unexpected explosions of joy, there’s nothing like playoff baseball.”
Here’s a look back at the Nationals’ first postseason series, which had everything Boswell promised and more.
Game 1: Nationals 3, Cardinals 2
The Nationals overcame seven walks by starter Gio Gonzalez and 10 strikeouts in 5⅔ innings by his counterpart, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, to steal a win in the opener at Busch Stadium. Jayson Werth robbed Daniel Descalso of a two-run homer in the sixth inning to prevent St. Louis from extending its 2-1 lead, and Tyler Moore delivered a two-out, two-run, pinch-hit single in the eighth. Nationals closer Drew Storen retired the Cardinals in order in an uneventful ninth to secure Washington’s first playoff win.
“Let’s hope they’re not all like that,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “But yeah, I’m sure they’re pretty fired up back home. It looked like we were dead there for a while. To come back with one big swing, it’s big.”
Game 2: Cardinals 12, Nationals 4
The Cardinals tagged Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann for five runs on seven hits in three innings and hit four home runs en route to a comfortable Game 2 win that evened the series.
“I feel like we’re going to score runs as the game goes on,” Werth said. “We’re going to bang with them. They got out in front in the early part, and they just kept pouring on runs. If we can be in the ballgame as the game goes on, we got a shot. I like our chances.”
Game 3: Cardinals 8, Nationals 0
The Cardinals took a 4-0 lead against starter Edwin Jackson in the second inning on the strength of rookie infielder Pete Kozma’s three-run homer. That was more than enough run support for St. Louis’s Chris Carpenter, who shut out the Nationals on seven hits over 5⅔ innings. Relievers Trevor Rosenthal, Fernando Salas and Joe Kelly combined to complete the shutout and push Washington to the brink of elimination. Incidentally, Rosenthal and Kelly would both figure prominently in the Nationals’ current season, with the latter serving up Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning on Wednesday.
“Don’t jump off a bridge,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said afterward. “We’ve won two in a row before.”
Game 4: Nationals 2, Cardinals 1
After an unlikely pitcher’s duel between Kyle Lohse and Ross Detwiler, the teams entered the bottom of the ninth tied 1-1. Werth led off the inning against Lance Lynn, and on the 13th pitch of the at-bat, sent a 96-mph fastball over the wall in left field for a game-winning home run. The ballpark erupted in celebration of what was, perhaps until this season, the biggest hit in Nationals history.
“We get to play tomorrow,” Werth said afterward. “That’s the best part.”
Game 5: Cardinals 9, Nationals 7
The deciding game in D.C. could not have started off much better for the Nationals. Rookie Bryce Harper and Michael Morse both homered in the third inning off Wainwright to stake Gonzalez to a 6-0 lead. The Cardinals would score the next five runs, but after Kurt Suzuki’s RBI single in the eighth, Storen took the mound in the ninth inning with a 7-5 lead.
Storen allowed a leadoff double to Carlos Beltran before retiring Matt Holliday on a groundout and striking out Allen Craig. Sotren got to two strikes on the next two batters, Yadier Molina and David Freese, but walked them both to load the bases. Descalso followed with a one-hopper up the middle that deflected off Ian Desmond’s glove and into center field, allowing the tying runs to score. Kozma delivered the final blow, a two-run single to right for his fourth and fifth RBI of the series. Jason Motte retired the Nationals in order in the bottom of the ninth.
“There’s a bad taste in my mouth,” Storen said after the heart-wrenching loss. “It’s going to stay there for a couple months, and it’s probably never going to leave.”
“You can see the see finish line and taste it,” Rizzo said. “You’re an out or two or a pitch or two away. And you don’t win it. You got to get all 27 outs before you can pack up the bats. We don’t know what to do tomorrow. It’s Saturday, and we don’t have a game.”
The defeat was the first of four losses in the NLDS for the Nationals over the next six years, with all but one of them coming in a Game 5 at home. While several Cardinals fans have suggested the team invite Kozma to throw the ceremonial first pitch before Game 1 of the NLCS, he can’t hurt the Nationals on the field in the rematch. Meanwhile, Washington has a healthy Strasburg in their corner and the burden of past playoff failures off their backs.
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