ST. LOUIS — Anthony Rendon raced to Allen Craig’s swinging bunt, the ball dying at his feet on the infield grass. There was no time to attempt a throw to first base, so Rendon held the ball as Drew Storen stood nearby, wearing a look of frustration and disbelief — one shared across the Washington Nationals’ dugout.
Storen walked slowly back to the mound to regroup, but the damage inflicted was a three-run seventh inning for the St. Louis Cardinals, the decisive frame in their 4-1 win over the Nationals on Saturday night.
The loss was the Nationals’ third straight and second in a row to the Cardinals. The key blow in the inning came not on Craig’s slow roller but on a 95-mph fastball from Stephen Strasburg to Matt Adams to start the inning. They were dug into a deeper deficit by a rare poor showing from their strong bullpen. Jerry Blevins’s miscues and Storen’s uncharacteristically wild outing pushed a one-run deficit to three.
The Nationals’ offense was stymied by the Cardinals’ strong starting pitching for the second straight night and has managed just two runs in the past three games.
Strasburg “did great,” catcher Jose Lobaton said. “Just offensively, we’re not making runs, and that’s the thing.”
The Nationals came to St. Louis playing their best baseball of the season but have been halted by a familiar nemesis. Since the beginning of the 2012 season, including the postseason, the Nationals are 8-16 against the Cardinals. Since 2008, they are just 2-17 in St. Louis and have scored just five runs in their past five games at Busch Stadium.
“We came here last year, and we were playing good and got swept,” center fielder Denard Span said. “I can’t put my finger on it. We haven’t had any luck here. Same thing these last two games. I don’t wanna say luck. We just ain’t getting the job done.”
Strasburg and Cardinals starter Shelby Miller tangled to a draw for six innings, the game a taut 1-1 affair entering the seventh. Then came Strasburg’s 3-1 fastball to Adams on the bottom edge of the strike zone. For many, the pitch would be hard to reach, let alone drive over the fence in right field. But for the second straight night, the burly left-hander homered against the Nationals.
“Generally that ball doesn’t go out of the ballpark,” Manager Matt Williams said. Added Strasburg: “You can always second guess yourself. But I think if I threw a 3-1 change-up, especially if he’s in swing mode, probably wouldn’t have had that result. Who knows?”
After a two-out infield hit by Jon Jay, Williams pulled Strasburg for Blevins. Lobaton whiffed catching a pitch, a passed ball that moved Jay to second. Blevins then walked Matt Carpenter. Williams lifted Blevins for Storen.
Storen’s first pitch, a slider that slipped out of his hands, hit Mark Ellis to load the bases. He walked the next batter, Matt Holliday, on five pitches to give up another run. Then came Craig’s swinging bunt that neither Rendon nor Storen could reach.
“It’s one of those days,” Lobaton said. Added Williams: “The bullpen has been really good. It’s going to have a hiccup every once in a while.”
The Nationals gave Strasburg an early lead in the first when Jayson Werth doubled in Rendon. It was the Nationals’ first lead in 18 innings.
Carpenter singled in Miller in the third to tie the score at 1, where it would stay into the seventh. The Nationals had their best chance in the top of the inning, when Strasburg walked to load the bases with two outs for Span. Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny turned to left-hander Randy Choate to face Span, who grounded into a fielder’s choice on the first pitch he saw to end the threat.
“I’m not looking to see pitches,” Span said. “I’m looking for a strike. He threw me a strike, and I beat it into the ground. That’s on me.”
The Nationals hope to salvage the series finale Sunday afternoon, the last game of a 10-game trip. Doug Fister is tasked with beating a team that certainly seems to have the Nationals’ number.
“It’s a long season,” Strasburg said. “It seems like they catch us when we’re in a rut or whatever. I can’t really explain it.”