ST. LOUIS —
Monday evening, after the bright sun and shadows had given way to purple-and-orange dusk, Carlos Beltran’s second home run sailed into the seats beyond the left field fence, an exclamation point of the Cardinals’ shock-and-awe capability. The blunt force of St. Louis had prevailed.
After the Cardinals thumped the Nationals, 12-4, at Busch Stadium, a National League Division Series quickly shaping up as a classic contrast of styles will shift to Washington, ready to host the Nationals’ first home playoff game, tied at one game each. Needing to rebound in the series’ final game here, the Cardinals knocked Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann out after three innings and won despite pulling their own starter, Jaime Garcia, after two.
The Nationals played 16 three-game series at Nationals Park this season. They won 11 of them and lost only five. Now, they face one more, against their toughest opponent, to keep their season alive. “It’s go home and win a series,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It would have been nice to win today. We’ll forget about this game and take the split.”
The St. Louis Cardinals do not play to merely beat their opponents, especially not the Nationals. They play to bludgeon them, to turn the game into a rout before Davey Johnson and Drew Storen and one of many potent pinch hitters can strike. Monday, they battered Zimmermann with four runs in the second, a homer from Allen Craig in the third and did not lead by less than four runs for the final six innings.
It’s not that the Nationals, who scored the second-most runs of any NL team in the second half, cannot win big. “We can play slugfest, too,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. But that may be the only way the Cardinals can win the series. This season, the Cardinals went 21-26 in one-run games, ranking in the bottom third of the majors. The Nationals went 27-21, seventh-best.
“I feel like we’re going to score runs as the game goes on,” right fielder Jayson 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.”
Despite back-to-back home runs by Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche in the fifth inning and a consistent barrage of line drives, the Nationals could not crawl their way to striking distance. The 98-win Nationals still remain in control, with all three remaining games to be played at Nationals Park, starting Wednesday at 1:07 p.m. Prior to the game, LaRoche called Game 2 “kind of a must-win for the Cardinals.”
“That was our goal,” Espinosa said. “We wanted to get one win here.”
The Cardinals made sure the Nationals wouldn’t get two. They started by crushing Zimmermann, battering him for five runs on seven hits in only three innings. Zimmermann, a stoic 26-year-old from Wisconsin, served all year as the steady anchor of the Nationals’ rotation, except for one condition: when they played the Cardinals.
Against every other opponent, Zimmermann produced a 2.38 ERA. In two starts this year against St. Louis, Zimmermann allowed 11 earned runs in 10 innings. In six career starts against the Cardinals, including Monday’s loss, Zimmermann owns a 9.73 ERA.
Although the Cardinals field a predominantly right-handed lineup, they still present a horrid matchup for Zimmermann. Zimmermann may be a dominant right-handed pitcher, but he does not dominate right-handed batters. This season, right-handed batters hit .268 with a .723 OPS against Zimmermann while lefties hit .234 with a .650 OPS.
“Before I could look up, it was already [4-1],” Zimmermann said. “They have a great lineup. You get a few guys out, and you look up and you’ve got Beltran coming up, [David] Freese. It just never stops. You have to make your pitches, and I wasn’t able to do that tonight.”
At first, Zimmermann seemed to push his struggles against the Cardinals aside. He retired all three Cardinals he faced in the first inning, striking out John Jay looking at a 95-mph outside fastball and exhausting only 13 pitches. He peppered the strike zone and induced weak, harmless contact.
In the second, having given himself a 1-0 lead with an RBI single, Zimmermann disintegrated. Starting with Allen Craig, the first four batters of the second inning — all right-handed hitters — whacked base hits off Zimmermann, none of them cheap. Freese’s RBI double put the Cardinals on the board, and before the inning ended on John Jay’s attempt to stretch a single into a double, all four runners had scored.
“I hope I never see this offense again,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
As the Cardinals pummeled Zimmermann, Manager Mike Matheny pinch-hit for Garcia, who injured his left shoulder. He had thrown 51 pitches and walked three Nationals in only two innings.
Once they chased Zimmermann, the Cardinals added on intermittently — a solo homer for Daniel Descalso in the fourth, a 441-foot blast by Beltran in the sixth and finally four runs in the ninth, capped by Jay’s RBI triple and Beltran’s two-run shot.
Each time the Nationals tried to come back, they were thwarted, once in the strangest of ways. In the seventh, down 8-3 and facing Edward Mujica, Jayson Werth singled and Bryce Harper whacked a double, his first hit of the postseason. Zimmerman drilled a liner to left — if it found the gap, the tying run would come to the on-deck circle with no outs.
Instead, the ball screamed into Matt Holliday’s glove. Werth scored with ease, and the ball slipped out of Holliday’s hand as he threw it back to the infield. Harper thought he could take advantage and bolted for third, but second baseman Descalso scurried to scoop the ball and fired to shortstop Pete Kozma, covering third, in time to tag out Harper.
“That kind of killed the rally,” Johnson said. “That’s just a little inexperience. He’s overly aggressive there.”
The Cardinals were not done scoring anyway. And they made clear they are not done in this series, not at all.
“I don’t think anyone said it was going to be easy,” Zimmerman said. “You’re not going to sweep your way through the playoffs. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a grind.”
More on the Nats-Cardinals NLDS:
Box score: Cardinals 12, Nationals 4
Boswell: They put a spell on Zimmermann
D.C. Sports Bog: Harper’s war paint in St. Louis
Photos: Scenes from Busch Stadium