ST. LOUIS — Late Wednesday afternoon, the Washington Nationals gathered their gear and shuffled from the visitors dugout to their clubhouse, where veterans dressed rookies in costumes for one last flight, the final slice of a season reduced to moldy formality. Out on Busch Stadium’s sun-drenched diamond, the St. Louis Cardinals lined up and shook hands, a pack of relentless hitters and electric pitchers on the brink of another division title.
Their equal a year ago, the Cardinals now stand as an example for the Nationals. They have traveled disparate paths since the moment Jayson Werth’s Game 4 walk-off home run sliced through the October chill and rattled around the Nationals Park bullpen. The Cardinals capsized the Nationals’ season the next night. They have thumped them every opportunity since. The carnage continued Wednesday afternoon as the Cardinals’ 4-1 victory completed a six-game season sweep of the Nationals and prevented Jordan Zimmermann from earning his 20th win.
Manager Davey Johnson rolled out his regular lineup in all three meetings this week. The series, for him, served as an opportunity to prove the Nationals remained equals. The Cardinals mathematically eliminated the Nationals on Monday night, one-hit them Tuesday and discarded them Wednesday. They entrenched their superiority.
“They just kicked our butt in just about every aspect of the game,” Johnson said. “I wanted us to stand up and show them we’re better. But we couldn’t do that. That hurts a little bit because I wanted to beat them bad. I’ll leave it up for grabs in Arizona. If the guys have had enough, I’ll go with some rookies. But this is the series we had to show them we’re the Washington Nationals, we’re a hell of a ballclub.”
After Monday night, when their playoff hopes vanished, the Nationals lost the will to show much of anything. “After that first night, I think all bets were off,” Werth said. “That one stung a little bit. We were pretty flat yesterday, and we weren’t much better today.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Nationals grabbed a 1-0 lead when Bryce Harper flared an RBI single to left off Shelby Miller that scored Denard Span. The Cardinals drew even with a run in the third and pulled away with two more in the fourth, which scored on Yadier Molina’s single up the middle. Matt Adams added a solo homer to right in the sixth, and the Cardinals’ fire-breathing bullpen finished them off.
“They just flat-out kicked our butt,” Span said. “You lose six games, they just were better than us.”
Afterward, the Nationals handed out superlatives. Johnson wished them luck and complimented Manager Mike Matheny. In trying to identify the Cardinals’ strength, the Nationals checked every box.
“They’re good 1-through-9,” Zimmermann said. “Everyone’s dangerous. You can’t make any mistakes.”
“They’ve got some good starters, but really what sets them apart is their bullpen,” Werth said.” They’ve got, even last year in the playoffs, Game 5 for example, we chased the starter, and then for five or six innings they bring in guys to throw 96-plus.”
“Whenever somebody gets in scoring position, they bring it in,” Span said. “They don’t let any opportunities go by them.”
The most glaring disparity between the Nationals and Cardinals is their approaches at the plate. Miller, Johnson said, “was all over the place.” He began the day by walking two of the first three hitters he faced. The Nationals could not take advantage. The Cardinals refused to swing at balls, swatted two-strike pitches to the opposite field and punished mistakes.
The Cardinals’ staff capitalized on the Nationals’ anxious approach. After Werth homered in the first inning Monday, the Nationals did not manage another extra-base hit all series. In six games against the Cardinals this year, the Nationals scored eight runs. Against the Cardinals relievers, they went 5 for 37 with three walks and 11 strikeouts.
“We chase balls out of the strike zone all day long, and these guys don’t,” Johnson said. “They’re disciplined. We need to learn from that. It’s kind of a learning experience if you want to be a really great ballclub. You learn from your failures as well as you learn from your successes. This whole series was a good example of that.”
No one has embodied their hold better than Zimmermann. In five regular season starts against the Cardinals before Wednesday, Zimmermann had gone 0-2 with a 9.12 ERA. In Game 2 of the National League Division Series last October, Zimmermann allowed five runs on seven hits over four innings of what became a blowout loss. If you removed his outings against the Cardinals, his career ERA would drop from 3.39 to 3.16.
Zimmermann fell behind in the fourth, hitting Matt Holliday on the forearm with a fastball to start the inning. He went ahead of Adams 0-2 but threw a fastball down the middle and watched Adams whack a double into the corner in left. Molina rolled a grounder through the middle, which scored both runs and sent the Cardinals ahead 3-1.
“I probably should’ve gotten two strikes and then mixed in a few balls in the dirt, up and out of the zone,” Zimmermann said. “I just didn’t do that tonight. They’re a veteran ballclub and a good-hitting ballclub. You get two strikes on them, it’s still tough to put them away.”
Johnson responded to the Nationals’ elimination from contention with defiance. After Wednesday, with three games left in his managerial career, it had turned to resignation. Someone wished him a nice off day in Arizona. “How am I supposed to do that?” he replied.
“We’ll come back next year,” Johnson said. “I wanted to get a little statement here. Unfortunately, we were unable to do that.”