ST. LOUIS — The Washington Nationals, even at their best, possess a special knack for making things hard on themselves. Wednesday afternoon, they took a one-touchdown lead but, before they won, still had to face the baddest hitter on the planet while he represented the go-ahead run. Wednesday night, they erased two deficits only to give themselves one they could not.
After the Nationals escaped Game 1 of their doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals with an 8-6 victory, they had run their winning streak to four games, the longest in the major leagues at that moment. Late at night, after the Cardinals beat them, 5-3, in Game 2, they were right back to where they started when they walked into Busch Stadium some 12 hours earlier.
The Nationals continued the offensive outburst that started during Sunday’s doubleheader sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers with a six-run ambush in the third of Game 1 that included the first steal of home in team history. That gave them a 7-0 lead, which they would preserve only after the Cardinals sent the trying or go-ahead run to the plate eight times in the final four innings.
The offense dried up at night against Jaime Garcia and the Cardinals’ bullpen, which held the Nationals to five hits, all singles, as Jordan Zimmermann allowed five earned runs — the same number he’d allowed in first three starts combined. The Nationals cobbled together three runs and sent Laynce Nix to the plate with a chance to tie the game in the ninth. Their expectations, though, are high enough to find little solace in that.
“Not really,” third baseman Jerry Hairston said. “I mean, we lost the game.”
Despite the dearth of offense in Game 2, the Nationals managed to tie the game twice, once in the fourth after falling behind 1-0 and again in the fifth after falling behind 3-1, the final two runs scoring on RBI singles by Danny Espinosa and Rick Ankiel. But after the heart of the Cardinals’ order struck Zimmermann with a two-out rally in the fifth in which four straight Cardinals reached base, the Nationals could not recover.
The crucial moment came at the beginning, with Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols batting with two outs and the bases empty. Before Wednesday, Pujols had hit two homer and a double against Zimmermann in five at-bats. In his first two at-bats, Pujols had struck out looking and lashed a line drive to the warning track in center. Zimmermann pushed Pujols to a 3-2 count before walking him with a change-up.
“I didn’t want to make a mistake right there,” Zimmermann said. “I’m just thinking don’t leave something over the middle. I don’t want to give him a cookie 3-2 just to hit. I want to still be extra fine with the pitch and just not make that huge mistake.”
Zimmermann did not let Pujols beat him — but the batters following him did. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina hit three straight singles, scoring two runs. The Nationals would not produce another hit until Ian Desmond’s single with two outs in the ninth.
Earlier in the day, even with the second game looming, Manager Jim Riggleman had to empty both bullpen barrels, using Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen for the final 10 outs of Game 1, limiting his options for Wednesday night’s game. In the end, the Nationals cared more about the result, which ensured Desmond’s steal of home, the back end of a double steal, wouldn’t be for naught.
“You just can’t let them get back in the game,” Riggleman said of Game 1. “It was just a tough-fought win for a 7-0 ballgame. To have to grind it out like that, it just speaks to, you have to keep adding on.”
In the first three innings, six Nationals base runners had an opportunity to take two bases on a single. And all six of them went either first to third or second to home. When Rick Ankiel raced from first to third on Jayson Werth’s single, his spike fell off his foot between second and third. He still slid in safe, headfirst.
While Ankiel slid into third, Werth saw the throw to third and alertly scampered to second. Werth, who also used a hard slide to break up a double play in the first, excels at those subtle base-running details.
“That kind of play shows how our attitude is this year,” Storen said. “Down in the bullpen, we saw that, and we get fired up about that stuff. With his talent, he doesn’t need to do that stuff. But he does. He grinds it out.”
The Nationals almost squandered their lead with a calamitous sixth inning. Chad Gaudin replaced starter John Lannan with a man on first and no outs and promptly induced a 6-4-3 double play. The Nationals were cruising . . . until they weren’t.
Minutes earlier, the Nationals had a 7-2 lead, the bases clear and a win halfway in their pocket. Then — after a double, an error, a walk and two singles — they led by two, the tying runs were on base and walking to the plate was Pujols. Riggleman summoned Clippard, the reliever he always calls for when the Nationals are in their worst jams.
“You have to stick to your strengths,” Clippard said. “Albert does what he does, and everyone knows that. But at the end of the day, we’re out there as well, doing our thing. You have to stick to your strengths, and that’s what I did. I didn’t want to give into him. I went right after him.”
On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, after he had fouled off two fastballs and a change-up, Pujols lofted a 94-mph fastball to left field. The crowd’s roar died when Nix settled under the ball and clasped his mitt around it, finally stopping the rally.
Nix blasted a solo home run in the eighth, which broke a string of 13 straight outs. The 417-foot homer seemed like necessary insurance when Pujols lined an RBI single off Burnett in the bottom of the inning.
Storen recorded the final four outs, pitching around a one-walk in the ninth, for his second save this year. The final out came when Werth slid to snag a sinking liner. Even when they won Wednesday, it did not come easy.