ST. LOUIS — The greatest moment in the brief history of the Washington Nationals came at the expense of the St. Louis Cardinals. Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of last fall’s NLDS kept his team’s season alive and undoubtedly turned thousands of D.C. area residents into baseball fans for good.
Every opportunity the Nationals have had to play against the Cardinals since that glorious night, though, has resulted in misery. Obviously, nothing can compare to the sting of their Game 5 meltdown 24 hours after Werth launched his homer into the October darkness. But the ensuing six matchups between these two clubs this year proved miserable in their own right.
The final blow came Wednesday afternoon during a lackluster, 4-1 loss at Busch Stadium. It sent the Nationals out of town with an 0-6 record against St. Louis in 2013, six games in which they scored a total of eight runs.
The Cardinals need only win once more to clinch the NL Central title. The Nationals need not make any plans beyond Sunday’s season finale in Arizona.
“I tell ya, they just kicked our butt in just about every aspect of the game,” Davey Johnson said. “I tip my hat to them.”
St. Louis’ 3-game sweep in D.C. way back in April could be shrugged off to early season woes, but the Nationals arrived here on Monday still mathematically alive for a playoff berth and owner of baseball’s best record over the previous six weeks. They both wanted — and expected — to play well.
“These guys knocked us out of the playoffs, and they’re in a pennant race and we’re 0-5 against them this year?” Johnson said before the series finale. “I’m putting my best foot forward. We need to send a message back over there that they can’t just walk over us.”
The Cardinals then proceeded to stomp on the Nationals one final time, plating four runs off Jordan Zimmermann and riding six effective innings from Shelby Miller and three more from their bullpen to walk away with a convincing victory.
This was nothing new for the Nationals, and it was nothing new for Zimmerman, who despite mountains of success against every other franchise in the majors continues to be baffled by this one. He has now made seven starts in his career against St. Louis (including Game 2 of the NLDS) and now sports an 0-4 record and 8.83 ERA.
“They’re good 1-through-9,” the right-hander said. “Every one of those guys is hitting over .270-.280. Everyone’s dangerous. You can’t make any mistakes. … I don’t know really what their gameplan is, but they obviously see me pretty well.”
Wednesday’s offensive onslaught by the Cardinals prevented Zimmermann from becoming a 20-game winner for the first time in his career, but it didn’t spoil an otherwise fantastic season for the 27-year-old. Building off his success from the previous two seasons, Zimmermann wound up 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA. More important in his mind: He pitched a career-high 213 1/3 innings and didn’t miss a start along the way, in spite of a lingering neck strain that hampered him in midseason.
“Over 200 innings and a pretty low ERA, so I’m happy with the way the season went,” he said. “I wish I wouldn’t have had the little neck problem, but that’s gone now and I feel good. I wish I could keep pitching. I guess I’ll be ready to go in spring training.”
“He’s a horse,” Jayson Werth said. “He’s probably our No. 1 guy on the staff. He pitched great for us all year. I’m looking forward to having him in our rotation for a long time.”
Zimmermann benefited from more run support than other members of the Nationals’ staff received, but he still could have wound up with more wins had his lineup produced just a few more key hits. In seven of his 31 starts, the Nats were held to zero or one run.
They were held to those totals in each of the last two games of this series, nearly no-hit by rookie Michael Wacha on Tuesday before being limited to one early run off Miller on Wednesday. Those two performances came after the Nationals were officially eliminated from the playoff race Monday night, a development players now admit had a carryover effect.
“After that first night, I think all bets were off,” Werth said. “That one stung a little bit. We were pretty flat yesterday, and we weren’t much better today.”
“All I can say is, I think it took a lot out of us on Monday, when we lost,” Denard Span said. “The last six weeks, we’ve been climbing, scratching, playing good baseball, trying to get back into this thing. And I think once it hit us that it was over, I think it took a lot out of us. Still no excuse. We’re still professionals. We’ve still got to finish the season off as best as possible.”
They’ll attempt to do that this weekend in Arizona, with three games left to play against the also-eliminated Diamondbacks. At best, they could finish the season with 87 wins. At worst, they would be held to 84.
Johnson hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll continue to play all of his veterans or give younger players a look. That dilemma was of less concern to him Wednesday than the fact his team had just been swept again by a Cardinals club that has owned this matchup since the moment after Werth touched the plate on that memorable night last October.
“That hurts a little bit, because I wanted to beat them bad,” Johnson said. “I’ll leave it up for grabs in Arizona. If the guys have had enough, I’ll go with some rookies. But this is the series we had to show them we’re the Washington Nationals, we’re a hell of a ballclub.”