You couldn’t have expected anything more than what Ross Detwiler provided for the Nationals, who were asking a lot of a guy making his first playoff start. Trying to stave off elimination against the postseason-proven St. Louis Cardinals, they needed a solid opening act from Detwiler Thursday — and the 26-year-old lefthander nailed the assignment.

Through six outstanding innings, Detwiler succeeded where other members of the National League’s top regular season pitching rotation had failed so far in this series. The ballclub has been in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable position of playing from behind because the starters have been a wreck. Detwiler emphatically ended that trend, giving up a lone unearned run that kept the Nationals in the game.

“He was unbelievable,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, who struck out the side in the eighth. “It’s a lose-and-we-go-home game. It’s as simple as that. You know you’re not in a position to have a lot of things go wrong. And you want to have a lot of things go right from the start. He was unbelievable in really getting us off to the start we needed.”

Fortunately for the Nationals, Detwiler was working in the right place. During the regular season, he went 8-2 with a 2.59 ERA in 901 / 3 innings at Nationals Park. That’s the type of large sample size that inspires confidence among managers. “Hey, I love him,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “And I especially love him here.”

Detwiler only gave up three hits against the Cardinals’ formidable lineup, which had pounded the Nationals’ pitching staff the previous two games. One walk was the only blemish on his record. After first baseman Adam LaRoche staked him to a 1-0 lead with a leadoff home run in the second, Detwiler walked No. 8 batter Pete Kozma leading off the third. Kozma eventually scored after an error by shortstop Ian Desmond.

Although it’s always bad form to give up a leadoff walk, especially to a bottom-of-the-order batter, Detwiler would have sidestepped the mistake if not for the fielding blunder. He cruised from there and left to a standing ovation.

It was a far different ending than the last time Detwiler faced the Cardinals. In losing to St. Louis Sept. 30, he gave up seven runs (three earned) in 2 1/3 innings. It was his last start of the season, and that wasn’t the way he wanted to go out. “I felt like I really had something to prove,” Detwiler said. He paused and then added, “And if we [lost] this game, there’s no tomorrow.”

From a pitching standpoint, the Nationals needed a change. Clearly, their approach against the Cardinals’ batting order was not working the first three games.

With October in mind, General Manager Mike Rizzo built a power-armed pitching staff. In the history of Major League Baseball, hard throwers, who have command of their pitches, have generally fared well during the playoffs.

Detwiler is in that mold. But he decided to mix it up, throwing more changeups than usual. The Cardinals did not have as many good swings as they did while blasting starter Edwin Jackson’s pitches on Wednesday.

“Well, I think it’s pretty obvious the last two games really didn’t go our way,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “When that happens, you have to look for ways to make some adjustments. We knew that’s what needed to happen.

“Ross really mixed his speeds well. He threw a lot more breaking balls. And he really had command of his pitches. Ross is a power pitcher, there’s no mystery to that, but he did what he needed to today and it really worked. Man, it worked.”

Some Nationals observers would say that it was about time.

The sixth overall pick in the 2007 first-year player draft, Detwiler finally began to fulfill his potential this season. A hip injury adversely affected his development, but Johnson put him in the rotation this season after he impressed in spring training. He proved he deserved to be there.

“Some players, it takes them a little time to know who they are,” Johnson said. “He’s definitely getting to the point where he knows what he’s capable of in this game.”

Rizzo has known for some time. The scout in him was sure that Detwiler could deliver the way he did against the Cardinals.

“It shows what he’s made of,” Rizzo said. “We all have seen it. We read the radar gun. We see the breaking stuff. But for this kid to perform under that pressure … the whole team and the whole season was on his shoulders.

“He went out there against a really good hitting club and performed. He gave us exactly what we needed. I mean, six innings and no [earned runs] was great. He controlled the tempo of the game.”

And of course, the executive in Rizzo is always thinking about the bigger picture.

“It’s a huge step in his development, in him becoming a front-of-the-rotation guy,” Rizzo said. “It really shows what the scouts saw in him. The makeup and the character … we knew it was there and he showed it. This is who we knew he was.”

Under difficult conditions, Detwiler showed everyone. If the Nationals can keep it going, we now know he has what it takes to pull off something even bigger next.

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