Associated Press photo
Tyler Moore watches his go-ahead single fall into shallow right field.
ST. LOUIS -- Their starting pitcher couldn't find the strike zone to save his life. Their only player with considerable postseason experience couldn't deliver a hit with men in scoring position. Their Gold Glove corner infielders couldn't make routine plays in the field.
In so many ways, the Nationals couldn't have drawn up a worse set of storylines for their first-ever postseason game. And yet, when they looked up at the scoreboard at Busch Stadium at the end of 3 hours and 40 minutes of the most tension-filled ballgame a team from Washington had experienced in 79 years, wouldn't you know they found themselves victorious.
Rookie Tyler Moore delivered the biggest base hit in Nationals history, a two-out, two-strike, two-run single to right in the top of the eighth, turning what was shaping up to be a ragged Game 1 of the National League Division Series into a rousing 3-2 win.
"I don't really know how we won that game, to be honest," reliever Craig Stammen said. "But we pulled it out somehow, and that's kind of how the playoffs goes. You just kind of pull games out."
Unable all afternoon to produce in clutch situations, the Nationals found salvation in the 25-year-old Moore, who poked a 1-2 pitch from lefty Marc Rzepczynski into right field. Michael Morse and Ian Desmond raced home to give the visitors their first lead since the top of the second and leave a sellout crowd of 47,078 in stunned silence.
"It was overwhelming," Moore said. "I got chills out there. It was great, because 50,000 [fans] and you couldn't hear anything. It was great."
Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen then combined to finish this one off and preserve the first postseason victory by a Washington major-league team since Game 3 of the 1933 World Series at Griffith Stadium.
Just like that, Gio Gonzalez's disastrous start, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa's struggles at the plate, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche's fielding woes became afterthoughts. The Nationals, despite all that went wrong on a chilly October afternoon in St. Louis, took a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series.
"The first game in a five-game series is crucial," Zimmerman said. "It's such a short series. For us to be able to kind of put their backs up against the wall, now they have to win tomorrow. ... For us to get this first game is huge. If we can go out and get the second game tomorrow, obviously it's a huge advantage for us."
Three full hours before gametime, Davey Johnson was talking about his philosophy with starting pitchers and how that wouldn't change just because the calendar shifted to October.
"Gio has struggled at times during the season," the manager explained. "A couple times out, I think he's about 50 pitches after two innings. And Gio will usually come by me and say: "Relax, Skip, I got it. I got it."
Johnson surely had to be worried about his postseason ace after two ridiculously wild innings to open Game 1. Gonzalez walked five of the first nine batters he faced, including the Cardinals' seventh, eighth and ninth hitters in succession, uncorked a run-scoring wild pitch and threw only 27 of his first 55 pitches for strikes.
Somehow through all of that, the left-hander kept St. Louis to only two runs. So Johnson stuck with his starter, never making anyone in the bullpen move a muscle until the bottom of the fifth.
"I resisted the temptation," Johnson said. "I was about one hitter away from getting Stammen ready, and he got out of it and pitched pretty good until he got a little wild there at the end. But he kept us in there, and that's what your ace does."
Gonzalez did manage to right the ship enough to muddle his way through five hair-raising innings, never allowing more than those two early runs. He wound up posting one of the craziest-looking pitching lines in postseason history, giving up only one hit while walking seven, striking out five and throwing a whopping 110 pitches.
"It definitely drains your battery," Gonzalez said. "The fans are in there, you're at someone else's house trying to go out there and get a win. It's pretty hard. It was kind of interesting, [I] kept everybody on the edge of their seat. I kept talking to myself, which I normally do, and just said I'm going to give these guys a chance. I don't want to blow it out of the water."
In doing so, Gonzalez somehow kept his team in the game, the Nationals trailing 2-1 nearly the entire afternoon. They scored their first run thanks to another clutch hit from Kurt Suzuki (who became a real force at the plate in September) but squandered plenty of opportunities to add more.
Despite striking out 10 times in 5 2/3 innings against Adam Wainwright, the Nationals did put 10 men on base against the Cardinals' Game 1 starter. But aside from Suzuki's early base hit, they couldn't produce in big spots.
Collectively, the Nationals were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position through the game's first 7 2/3 innings, with Werth the biggest culprit. Twice the man with the most postseason experience on Washington's roster came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. And twice he failed to bring a run home, grounding out to end the second and striking out to end the sixth.
"We had a lot of chances," he said. "Man, we had some chances. I had some chances. I felt like we were going to score at some point."
Their lineup unable to push across the tying run, the Nationals' bullpen and defense did their part to keep this a 2-1 game. Werth atoned for his struggles at the plate by battling the sun to rob Daniel Descalso of what would have been a two-run homer in the sixth.
Ryan Mattheus then authored one of the greatest relief pitching performances in postseason history. Given the ball with the bases loaded and nobody out in the seventh, the right-hander remarkably recorded three outs on only two pitches, getting a forceout at the plate and then getting a 6-4-3 double play to keep the Nationals' late-inning hopes alive.
"My mindset was: Come in, get a groundball and hopefully minimize the damage," Mattheus said. "If I get three outs and give up one run there, then that's a good job, too. Luckily I was lucky enough to make two good pitches, they were hit right at guys, and we got three outs."
And then got the biggest postseason hit by a player wearing a Washington uniform in a really long time.