ST. LOUIS — The 79-year wait may not have been long enough to prepare the nation’s capital for the frayed nerves and frustration, for the manic, heart-in-your-throat elation of playoff baseball. The Washington Nationals took the city on a seven-month-long joyride, and on Sunday, in one sun-drenched afternoon at Busch Stadium, they dragged it through a meat grinder. Don’t worry about your heart rate. This can only last a month.
In their 3-2 victory over the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals , the Nationals could not have played worse at times, but in the end they could not have felt better about it. Their ace went wild, their hitters wasted chances and they swung the door open. They possess neither the history nor the October-toughened hide of the Cardinals, but they somehow kept Game 1 of the National League Division Series close until rookie pinch-hitter Tyler Moore showed how little experience can mean on the field.
Moore, a 25-year-old with the thick drawl to prove he is from Brandon, Miss., started his season at Class AAA Syracuse. Sunday afternoon, after loopy twists and maddening turns, he delivered a game-winning, two-out, two-run, pinch-hit single in the eighth inning. A few moments later, closer Drew Storen struck out Matt Holliday with an 0-2 slider, and the Nationals had secured their first playoff win in their first playoff game in the most pulse-pounding manner possible.
“Let’s hope they’re not all like that,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who scored the Nationals’ first playoff run. “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.”
If the Nationals remained calm Sunday, when will they become nervous? Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals’ ace, walked seven batters. Their highest-paid player, Jayson Werth, twice left the bases loaded with two outs. The opposing starter, Adam Wainwright, struck out 10 in 52 / 3 innings, taking advantage of the shadows that crisscrossed the infield.
“I don’t really know how we won that game, to be honest,” reliever Craig Stammen said. “We pulled it somehow, and that’s kind of how the playoffs go.”
The Nationals still trailed only 2-1 after seven innings because of Ryan Mattheus’s miracle escape in the seventh and Werth’s miraculous catch to rob a two-run homer in the sixth. And Gonzalez, despite the career-high seven walks, allowed only one hit and managed to keep the Nationals within striking distance.
“If we kept them right there, I felt like we were going to win the game,” Werth said. “For whatever reason, I felt like that was our game.”
The wildness and wasted chances and key plays all led to the top of the eighth. Michael Morse led off against reliever Mitchell Boggs and reached on shortstop Pete Kozma’s error. Ian Desmond laced his third hit of the game, a single to right field that pushed Morse to third base.
Up came Danny Espinosa, who after striking out in his first three plate appearances dropped a bunt, even with the slow-footed Morse on third. Desmond moved up to second for Kurt Suzuki, whom Boggs struck him out with a 97-mph fastball.
Davey Johnson, the 69-year-old managing his first postseason game in 15 years, sent left-hander Chad Tracy to pinch-hit. Rookie manager Mike Matheny countered by calling on Marc Rzepczynski, his only left-handed reliever. Johnson responded by pulling back Tracy and sending up Moore, the rookie who had a 10-homer season in limited time.
“I told Tracy when he went up there, if he takes him out and brings in Rzepczynski or whatever his name, I’m hitting Moore,” Johnson said.
Moore had never faced Rzepczynski, and so as he walked up the dugout steps, thought back to his conversation with Mark DeRosa prior to the game. DeRosa told Moore the lefty would throw him mostly sinkers, but to watch for a change-up.
“I’m coming off the bench in front of 50,000 people,” Moore said. “It’s crazy. I’ve been in that position before. I was able to calm myself down. It’s kind of just you and the pitcher up there.”
Said DeRosa: “T-Mo has ice water in his veins. All the confidence in the world against any left-hander.”
Moore ran the count to 2-2. He reduces hitting to its simplest form — see the ball, swing hard. Rzepczynski fed him a 93-mph sinker on the outside corner, and he flared it into right field. Both Morse and Desmond trotted home, the Nationals led, 3-2, and Moore glanced into his erupting dugout.
“It was overwhelming,” Moore said. “I got chills out there. You couldn’t hear anything, and all of a sudden, I see my teammates jumping up and down – they couldn’t control themselves. It was great.”
The Nationals had fought the entire game to keep it to within one run. Gonzalez had walked the ballpark and forced in one run with a wild pitch to Wainwright, but had somehow kept it a one-run game. “Vintage Gio,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He has a propensity to keep you in the ballgame and make the pitch when he has to.”
They couldn’t add on to the run they scored on Suzuki’s second-inning RBI single, partly because Werth grounded out with the bases loaded in the second and struck out in the sixth. But Werth found a way to keep the Nationals close.
In the sixth, with one runner on, Daniel Descalso ripped a deep drive off Stammen to right. Werth froze, the ball lost in the shadows. Werth started backpedaling, trying to find an angle to block the sun. At the last second, he sprinted through a shadow created by a light standard.
“I remember being like, ‘Oh, there it is!’ ” Werth said. “Everything happened at the last second.”
As he reached the fence, the ball finally in sight, Werth leaped with, his glove extending, his back crashing into the wall. The ball smacked into the palm of Werth’s mitt above the eight-foot high fence, and somehow, as Werth fell back to the ground, he held on to the ball.
“I’m telling you, if I didn’t go in the shadow, I don’t know if I catch the ball,” Werth said.
Werth’s snag seemed easy by comparison after the next inning. In the seventh, Stammen hit Holliday with a pitch to load the bases with no outs. Hulking cleanup hitter Allen Craig walked to the plate. Earlier in the game, the scoreboard flashed Craig’s average with runners in scoring position this year: .400. In the bullpen, Sean Burnett turned to Mattheus and asked sarcastically, “Is that good?”
Now, Johnson trudged to the mound and called for Mattheus. Craig grounded Mattheus’s first pitch to Desmond, who threw home for one out. Yadier Molina grounded his second pitch to Ryan Zimmerman, who started a 5-4-3 double play. Mattheus had become the first pitcher in postseason history to throw two pitches and complete a full inning.
“I wanted to use that momentum right there,” Mattheus said. “That was a big swing.”
The Nationals rode the escape for the next two innings, confident from a season’s worth of nailbiters. “Flash back to April and May,” Rizzo said. “That’s how we pulled it out.”
The Nationals built their 98-win season on unexpected heroes, on just enough offense, on overcoming. In the playoffs, a place they had never been before, they didn’t change in their opening game.
“The Cardiac Nats,” Desmond said. “It was a lot of fun. I can’t wait to do it again.”
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS:
Gallery: Photos from NLDS Game 1
Boswell: Key hit rewrote the script