Nats open flat in home playoff debut

Nats open flat in home playoff debut
October 10, 2012, 8:45 pm
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Updated at 7:25 p.m.

They turned out in record numbers to witness the first postseason game played on District of Columbia soil in 79 years, and perhaps coax the home ballclub to victory in the pivotal third game of this five-game National League Division Series.

The 45,017 who crammed themselves into Nationals Park on a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon, though, could yell, scream and sing along to "Take on Me" when Michael Morse stepped to the plate until their vocal chords were damaged.

That still wouldn't have prevented Edwin Jackson from digging his team into another early hole, wouldn't have prevented a pressing Nationals lineup from continuing to strand runners in scoring position and wouldn't have prevented a previously air-tight bullpen from turning a manageable deficit into an 8-0 thumping at the hands of the Cardinals.

"To see the stadium full and people excited, it's a long time coming," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Unfortunately, we didn't give them too much to cheer about."

No, it's never a good sign when the emotional high point of the day was the ovation for Frank Robinson throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, not anything that happened after Jackson threw the actual first pitch.

Needing a big performance from someone, anyone, in attempt to turn this series back in their favor, the Nationals instead laid their second straight egg against the defending World Series champions and now find their once-charmed season on life support.

After a disheartening, 12-4 loss Monday in St. Louis, the Nationals returned home knowing they could take this series simply by winning twice in three days. They'll now have to win on back-to-back days, staring elimination in the face after their second-straight lopsided loss.

"Getting boat-raced is never fun, but a loss is a loss," shortstop Ian Desmonds said. "If you lose 1-0 or 8-0, it doesn't matter. At the end of the day, it's 2-1 and we've got a ballgame to play tomorrow."

For a team that led the major leagues with 98 wins, this will be the first taste of real adversity in more than six months. Whether desperation brings out the best in this postseason-inexperienced bunch remains to be seen.

"I take nothing for granted," manager Davey Johnson said. "We are not out of this by a long shot. ... Shoot, I've had my back to worse walls than this. I like my ballclub, and I think we'll come out and play a good game tomorrow."

The way things played out today, perhaps a little desperation is in order. The Nationals can't claim their calm and carefree approach to date in this series has worked.

Whatever struggles the Nationals endured today on the mound or at the plate certainly weren't from lack of fan support. The ballpark was throbbing from the moment players were introduced a full 30 minutes before first pitch and kept coming back to life every time a big situation arose.

"I think our fan base and the city and the surrounding area can be proud of this team, and we can be proud of our fans," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "They showed up today and did a great job."

The home team simply couldn't produce in any of those situations to give the fans what they so desperately wanted.

It didn't help that Jackson dug them into another early hole, giving up four runs through his first two innings.

The right-hander had already displayed mixed results in two late-season starts against the Cardinals, holding them to one unearned run over eight dominant innings at home on Aug. 30, then failing to get out of the second inning during a nightmare, nine-run outing Sept. 28 in St. Louis.

Which version of Jackson would show up this time? Though the end results weren't as bad, he looked much more like the latter than the former.

The Cardinals got to Jackson for a solo run in the top of the first, with Matt Holliday and Allen Craig producing back-to-back, two-out hits to put the Nationals in a 1-0 hole and leave the crowd murmuring.

Then they really got to him in the top of the second, racking up four consecutive base hits to open the inning, the biggest blow a three-run homer to left by rookie shortstop Pete Kozma on a first-pitch fastball that tailed over the inner half of the plate.

"It was supposed to be away, and it missed middle-in," Jackson said. "It was something that if he is trying to be aggressive and just turn and burn, it was the perfect pitch for him."

Jackson battled his way back and managed to salvage a five-inning start out of it all, but the damage was done. And considering the way the Nationals have been delivering -- or, more accurately, not delivering -- at the plate in this series, the size of the deficit almost didn't matter.

Continuing their trend from Games 1 and 2 at Busch Stadium, the Nationals did manage to put men on base. In fact, they recorded at least one hit in each of the first six innings this afternoon.

They just couldn't drive any of them in. Whether it was Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse stranding two runners in the bottom of the first, Danny Espinosa and Kurt Suzuki leaving a man on in the bottom of the fourth, Morse flying out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth or Werth popping out with two on in the bottom of the sixth, squandered opportunities were abundant.

For the day, the Nationals went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Their only players who have recorded a hit with a man on second or third base in this series: Suzuki, Tyler Moore and Jordan Zimmermann.

"We're getting guys on base. That's good," Morse said. "That's part of it. Hopefully tomorrow we can change that and start getting guys in."

Making only his fourth start of the season after dealing with s nerve injury in his right shoulder, Chris Carpenter by no means flashed the top form that made him the ace of previous Cardinals postseason rotations. But he was good enough to make big pitches when he needed them, even if most of his biggest outs came via popups or flyballs, not grounders or strikeouts.

Each time the Nationals gave themselves a chance, the crowd rose to its feet and tried to transfer its strength to whichever batter stood in the box. And each time the place grew silent after Carpenter snuffed out another rally.

"We had him in some tough spots," Werth said. "We had him on the ropes a couple times. We were just one bloop away from a totally different ballgame."

Such was the tone of the afternoon, a record-setting gathering desperately wanting the home team to do something worth a roar but ultimately left with nothing to do but mutter and start fretting about the do-or-die situation the Nationals will now face tomorrow.

"We know what we've got to do," LaRoche said. "We've kind of got our backs up against the wall now. Take it one game at a time. It's a must-win tomorrow."