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15 Thoughts: Nationals' win in Game 1 of the NL Division Series

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Photo - Tom Gannam/AP
Drew Storen earned a save in Game 1 as the Nationals beat the Cardinals on the road.
Tom Gannam/AP Drew Storen earned a save in Game 1 as the Nationals beat the Cardinals on the road.
Beanballs,Sports,Brian McNally

1.With two games on the road to start the National League Division Series the Nationals needed to find a way to exit St. Louis with at least one win and bring the best-of-five series back to Washington at worst even. They accomplished that … somehow. You leave the bases loaded twice, make two errors and watch your starting pitcher walk SEVEN batters — well, winning doesn’t seem in the cards.

2. Let’s start with how it happened: The Tyler Moore pinch hit in the eighth inning pushed home two runs to make it 3-2 Nats. Moore has been apprenticing under veterans like Chad Tracy and Mark DeRosa all season. He has 10 home runs. He’s used to this role now. Remember the RBI single he had in almost the exact same situation Aug. 4 against Miami? Down 6-5 in the eighth inning at Nationals Park, Moore slapped a single to right field to tie the game. Washington took the lead on Danny Espinosa’s three-run homer the next at-bat and Bryce Harper capped things off with a solo shot of his own. But that eventual 10-7 win isn’t possible without Moore’s cool-under-pressure performance.

3. Moore came through again when St. Louis manager Mike Matheny went with the lefty Marc Rzepczynski to face pinch hitter Chad Tracy. Nats manager Davey Johnson immediately turned to Moore without Tracy taking a swing. It shows one big difference between these two teams — Johnson has a bench he trusts. Matheny has to turn to the likes of Skip Schumaker in a big situation. With runners at first and second and two out in the sixth Schumaker (.707 OPS) batted for reliever Lance Lynn.  Washington has three batters with a .777 OPS or higher coming off the bench (Moore, Tracy and Roger Bernadina), and all have been in that role throughout the season. The Cardinals? They have Matt Carpenter (.828 OPS) and a bunch of bad offensive players. Schumaker is the second best hitter off the bench. Not good.

4. Credit to Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who used his vicious curve to tie the Nats in knots all afternoon. Can’t even really blame the shadows cast by Busch Stadium’s roof given how many came early in the contest. According to ESPN STATS, Wainwright became the first player in postseason history to strike out at least 10 batters with fewer than six innings pitched. Wainwright had 10 strikeouts and nine of them came on his curve.

5. Having given credit where it’s due, Washington isn’t going very far this October with its top four hitters batting 2-for-19 with a walk. Jayson Werth (1-for-5), Bryce Harper (0-for-5), Ryan Zimmerman (1-for-5) and Adam LaRoche (0-for-4, walk) weren’t productive as a group.

6. Need to add Danny Espinosa to that mix. He struck out three times in the No. 7 hole, twice on curves, and looked lost against Wainwright. Espinosa left runners at the corners with one out in the second. Then in the eighth, with first and second and no one out, he inexplicably tried a sacrifice bunt. That’s not a good play in that scenario. Plus, it was a bunt right back to the pitcher. Michael Morse, a slow runner anyway, had no chance to advance. The bunt did push the go-ahead run into scoring position and Moore made that work. Doesn’t mean it was the right move. Kurt Suzuki struck out and Moore flared a ball to right. If he strikes out, too? Espinosa is in for a lot more criticism.

7. Johnson defended Espinosa afterward. He is not a man who likes the bunt. No one who learned the game under the great Earl Weaver in Baltimore would. But Johnson credited Espinosa for a good bunt to get Ian Desmond over to second. His point? A faster runner would have scored from third, and the Cardinals almost threw the ball away anyway. Mitchell Boggs' throw to first was in the dirt, and he needed a great scoop by Allen Craig to save him. None of that makes a bunt a good decision there, however. If the runner at third isn’t fast, then he isn’t fast. You can’t use that as a reason for bunting. If it really wasn’t called by the dugout, Espinosa just made an odd decision.

8. Werth may have left the bases loaded at the plate in both the second and the sixth innings. But Washington doesn’t win that game without his brilliant catch against the wall in right. His leaping, snow cone grab took a two-run homer away from Daniel Descalso in the sixth inning with a runner on first base. That kept the score 2-1 St. Louis and set the stage for the rally.

9. Ryan Mattheus. That is all. No, seriously, just a huge effort in the seventh inning to escape a bases-loaded, no-out jam. Not sure jam is even the right word there. “Impending disaster” maybe? Craig Stammen was on for his second inning of work and that maybe wasn’t the best move. LaRoche was given an error at first on a smash by Jon Jay — honestly, an unfair scoring decision. The ball was scalded, and Jay is fast. Carlos Beltran followed with a single and Stammen hit Matt Holliday. But Mattheus came on to get Craig, the cleanup batter, to ground out to shortstop. Desmond, playing in, made the force at home. Then came the 5-4-3 double play from Yadier Molina. Zimmerman showed nice hands at third — it’s why you live with his occasional throwing issues — and Espinosa made as fine a turn as you’ll ever see with Craig bearing down on him at second. Great work from Mattheus.

10. About Zimmerman: A national audience is now seeing his unique throwing style. Look, there’s probably not a better defensive third baseman in the sport. But that awkward motion just makes you cringe sometimes. TBS analyst Bob Brenly noted it early in the game. It came up again in the eighth inning when Zimmerman fielded a routine grounder at third and triple-pumped before firing it in the dirt. His footwork was off, and when that happens he isn’t accurate with the ball. In a one-run game that could have spelled disaster. Instead, Tyler Clippard got the next three batters and made it a non-issue. Can’t worry about it if you’re the Nats. Zimmerman might make three ridiculous plays at third in Game 2 on Monday.

11. The Nats need the back of their bullpen to be rock solid. So far, so good. Clippard, who labored much of September, shook off that leadoff error in the eighth and got the bottom of the St. Louis order, including Carpenter, its best pinch hitter. Then Drew Storen came on and got a pair of flyouts and a strike out to end it against the Cardinals’ top three batters. Can’t draw it up any better than that.

12. Harper was 0-for-5, but he didn't look overmatched at the plate. He swung at a first-pitch sinker from Wainwright in the first and grounded out. In the third inning he fought back from an 0-2 hole, took a good curve to force a 3-2 count before finally striking out on another. But it was a seven-pitch at-bat. Werth led off with a hit in the fifth, and Wainwright again struck Harper out with a curve. But he had already fouled off two tough curves to stay alive and again forced a 3-2 count. Harper was robbed on a fine play by Descalso at second base in the seventh. His hard grounder to the right side looked as if it was headed into right field. In the ninth he got all fastballs from St. Louis closer Jason Motte and flew out to left on the fifth one.

13. Ian Desmond? Ian Desmond. He has earned praise all season, and he deserves more after Game 1. In his first postseason game he batted 3-for-4, including a key hit in the eighth inning to put runners at first and second with no one out, scored the go-ahead run on Moore’s single and stayed composed in the field in the seventh when Craig hit the ball right at him. Desmond fired home for the first out and helped Washington dodge a bullet in that frame.

14. Catcher Kurt Suzuki had an eventful day, too. The Nats have long said whatever offense Suzuki gives them is a bonus. But he drove home the game’s first run with an RBI single off Wainwright in the second inning. In the sixth he drew a two-out walk that put runners at first and second with Bernadina pinch hitting. The Cardinals did pull off a double steal of second and third base in the fifth when Holliday struck out for the second out. And Suzuki had to help hold Gio Gonzalez together with duct tape during a seven-walk performance. He blocked half-a-dozen curves and fastballs in the dirt and only let one get past him when Gonzalez lost a fastball down and in during the second inning. That was an obvious wild pitch charged to Gonzalez and allowed a run to score.

15. And so on to Game 2. Are you over October baseball yet? Get used to it. This is how it goes. On the road again Washington turns to Jordan Zimmermann, who was hammered by the Cardinals on Sept. 1 in an eight-run performance. But he has shown much better since that defeat. No Nats player exudes calm better than Zimmermann, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to postseason play. He seems tailor-made for it, but you never know. And that’s half the fun.

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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