Commentary

The Nationals find a way

It wasn't easy, but Washington somehow prevailed in St. Louis

Updated: October 8, 2012, 1:20 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Seventy-nine years.

After 79 years of waiting for a postseason baseball game to come into their lives, our good friends in our nation's capital finally got what they'd been waiting for Sunday afternoon. And …

We can only wonder, after watching that game, how many of them are being treated for heart attacks as we speak?

"Yeah. And this is one of them right here," laughed Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman after Sunday's 3-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, marking the city's first postseason victory since Game 3 of the 1933 World Series.

Well, if you're going to wait nearly eight decades for this inimitable October pageantry, the least you can do is get a win out of it. And the good news is, the Nationals delivered one of those wins in Game 1 of their National League Division Series, a game that had to be seen to be comprehended.

Somehow or other, the Nationals won this game. But looking back on it, the first question we should be asking is: How exactly?

Among the unlikely stuff that happened along the way was all of this:

• Their starting pitcher, Gio Gonzalez, walked SEVEN Cardinals (and ran up 10 three-ball counts) in five thrill-a-minute innings, even though he was unhittable enough to allow just one hit. He was the fourth starting pitcher in history to walk that many and give up one hit or none in a postseason game. But his team was the first that actually survived all that and WON.

• Nationals pitchers also hit two batters, making them the eighth team to plunk that many while also walking seven or more hitters in a nine-inning postseason game. Want to guess the record of the previous seven teams to do it? How 'bout 1-6.

[+] EnlargeGio Gonzalez
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonGio Gonzalez was all over the place on Sunday, walking seven in five innings.

• Not to be outdone, this team's hitters struck out 10 times in the 5 2/3 innings Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright was around. You know how many other starting pitchers in postseason history had whiffed 10 hitters without pitching at least six innings? Not a one. Of course.

• And in other news, the Nationals went 2-for-16 with runners on base in the first seven innings, miraculously escaped a bases-loaded, no-out mess in the seventh, and were the fortunate beneficiaries of Jayson Werth's first robbery of a home run in more than eight years

So all that happened in one game. And they won. Have we mentioned that?

Asked afterward if this game represented an excellent way to reacquaint the citizens of Washington with the madness of postseason baseball, first baseman Adam LaRoche mustered a small grin and deadpanned: "Let's hope they're not all like that."

All around him, LaRoche's teammates were trying to balance two powerful human experiences: (1) elation, and (2) exhaustion. And not in that order.

"If you're not exhausted after that game," said Werth, "whether you were playing or watching, there's something wrong with you. That's some postseason baseball right there."

"I was just texting with some of my buddies back home [in Virginia]," Zimmerman reported. "And I was telling them I'm just exhausted. And I didn't even really do anything."

Well, that's not totally true. He played nine innings. He came to bat five times. He got a hit. He committed what could have been a disastrous eighth-inning error (but wasn't). And in more important news, he lived to tell about it.

But he wasn't as grateful for that as his starting pitcher was. To watch Gonzalez pitch Sunday was the kind of event that could have reduced a lesser team to massive frustration. Or, at the very least, massive urges to cover their eyes -- and not uncover them until the coast was clear.

Luckily, though, they'd all seen this before -- and seen Gonzalez tightrope-dance his way out of these impending catastrophes before. So they knew there was hope he had one more Houdini performance in him on this stage, when they needed it most.

"It's not easy to watch," LaRoche confessed, "because we all love the guy like a brother, and we want him to go out there and dominate like he can. So when he doesn't have it, we're all doing everything we can to help him through it."

And by "everything," he meant: making so many trips to visit him, they could have collected frequent-mound-visit points -- especially during an excruciating second inning in which Gonzalez issued four walks and a run-scoring wild pitch, launched 37 agonizing pitches (several of them strikes) and gave up two runs. On zero hits.

We counted three visits in a span of three hitters at one point -- from delegations that included LaRoche, shortstop Ian Desmond, catcher Kurt Suzuki, second baseman Danny Espinosa and pitching coach Steve McCatty. The only member of the infield who didn't stop by was Zimmerman, who just couldn't muster the inspiration. Or the vocabulary.

"I don't have any words of wisdom for pitchers," Zimmerman said. "I leave that to [LaRoche]. He's more calming than me, mostly because I don't know if his heart beat has ever been more than 70 beats per minute -- unless he saw a deer coming at him or something."

Well, they'll be happy to know that Gonzalez appreciated all their calming words. But he especially paid attention to one other voice he kept hearing out there: his own.

"I kept talking to myself out there," he said, "like I normally do … just talking to myself, saying, 'I've got to give this team a chance.' I can't just go out there and hand [this game] over."

Had Gonzalez been managed by a lot of other men -- and a former manager by the name of Anthony La Russa comes to mind -- he might not have been around long enough to work his way out of his first postseason snafu. But Nats skipper Davey Johnson says he's witnessed Gonzalez throwing 50 pitches in the first two innings before -- only to come sauntering back to the dugout "and say, 'Relax, skip. I got it.'" So the manager took a deep breath and let Gonzalez huff and puff his way through a nightmarish inning.

[+] EnlargeTyler Moore
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelTyler Moore's two-run bloop single gave the Nats an eighth-inning lead.

Barely.

"I resisted the temptation," Johnson admitted later. "I was about one hitter away from getting [Craig] Stammen ready."

But Gonzalez finally retired Carlos Beltran for the third out, limiting the damage to only two runs, then headed right in his manager's direction.

"As soon as I got back to the dugout … I was like, 'Is your heart still beating? Did your leg go numb?'" Gonzalez quipped. "It's just one of those great things where you can have that kind of fun with your manager. He was out there smiling. It's like he was cool as the other side of the pillow. And that's what your manager is supposed to do -- to keep you calm, cool and collected out there."

Well, we'd hate to see how many hitters Gonzalez would have walked if he HADN'T been so calm, cool and collected. But that's a conversation for another day.

Instead, the conversation on this day revolved around all the different ways Gonzalez and his bullpen kept the Cardinals from scoring again.

He gave up a leadoff single in the fourth and got out of it. He walked two straight hitters and allowed a double steal in the fifth and worked through it. And that did it for his day. Then Werth bailed out the first member of the bullpen cavalry, Stammen, in the sixth, by staggering back to the right-field wall, fighting off the late-afternoon shadows and picking a Daniel Descalso home run ball out of the sky.

Afterward, no one was more shocked by that catch than Werth, for one very good reason: He couldn't see the ball until mere milliseconds before he caught it.

"After the inning, I came in and looked at [the replay], and I was like, 'What just happened?'" he said. "I saw that my last two steps before the wall, I went into the shadow of one of the light fixtures, and I remembered thinking, 'Oh, there it is.' And then I was able to jump up and get a good bead on it."

He was pretty sure at the time that it was "the first home run I ever robbed." Further research by Baseball Info Solutions, on the other hand, revealed that he'd done it before -- EIGHT years ago, by robbing Deivi Cruz at Dodger Stadium, on Oct. 2, 2004. Werth then denied ever robbing anybody of a homer at Dodger Stadium, so maybe he and Baseball Info Solutions can work this out some other time.

Nevertheless, the Nationals' most miraculous escape act was still to come. That was in the bottom of the seventh, when Stammen loaded the bases with nobody out -- and reliever Ryan Mattheus then marched in and pitched out of it. In just two pitches (force at the plate on the first pitch, 5-4-3 double play on the second). It made Mattheus the first pitcher in postseason history to compile this nifty line: 1 IP, 2 pitches.

"That," said his bullpen compadre, Drew Storen, "is not easy."

No kidding. None of it was easy. It's not supposed to be easy. It's October.

So naturally, it came down to rookie pinch-hitter Tyler Moore, digging in with two outs in the eighth after the Cardinals had brought in their only left-handed reliever, Marc Rzepczynski, in an attempt to force Johnson to make a move. So Johnson pulled back the left-handed-hitting Chad Tracy, pointed Moore toward home plate and happily watched him win the game by slapping a two-strike fastball into right for a two-run single.

It was the first postseason pinch hit by a guy playing for a team from Washington since Sam Rice got one in the 1933 World Series -- and the first RBI pinch hit since the immortal Mule Shirley singled in Ossie Bluege in Game 3 of the '24 World Series.

But heck, it was that kind of day -- a day full of history, a day full of lunacy and everything in between. We'd like to welcome the residents of the Washington metropolis back to the wild and wacky world of October baseball. And we should warn them right now: There could be a lot more of this nuttiness to come.

Asked if all those Washingtonians had better get used to this madness after all these years, Werth could merely chuckle and reply, pithily: "I hope so."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com