Nats survive their first postseason experience

Nats survive their first postseason experience
October 8, 2012, 2:43 am
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ST. LOUIS -- Twenty-one of the 25 players on their roster had never experienced this before. Neither had approximately 99 percent of their fan base back home in Washington.

Jayson Werth, though, had been here. He's been through the meat grinder of the postseason, and he knows what kind of toll it can take on teams and players who are entering uncharted territory.

"A lot of times you see teams in their first games, the first time they're there, and they crack or buckle," the veteran right fielder said. "I feel like we definitely gave a little bit, but we didn't break."

Oh, the Nationals gave plenty to the Cardinals Sunday afternoon in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. If not for the giant scoreboard in center field at Busch Stadium, a casual observer might well have thought they were trailing by a touchdown in the top of the eighth inning, not by a single run.

This, though, is what postseason baseball is all about. It's a roller-coaster of emotions. One minute you're sky-high, the next you're cursing yourself after a squandered opportunity.

The postseason is about hitting in the clutch, making big pitches with runners in scoring position and coming up big in the field with everything on the line.

For seven innings, the Nationals failed in just about every manner possible. And then they flipped a switch and thrived in all three facets, escaping with a 3-2 victory that felt like the most important victory in team history.

Which, of course, it was. After a 98-win season, the NL East title and all sorts of new-found attention for a franchise that had never even spent a day on the fringes of the spotlight, the Nationals entered this series with a bullseye squarely on their chests.

Forced to open on the road against the defending World Series champs, they suddenly found themselves facing real pressure for one of the first times in their charmed season. And -- despite everything their manager and they insisted in the days leading up to it -- they played like a team that was caught up in the moment.

Gio Gonzalez couldn't find the strike zone. Werth couldn't drive in a run. Danny Espinosa couldn't make contact. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche couldn't make routine plays. Craig Stammen couldn't avoid plunking opposing batters.

Yet in spite of themselves, the Nationals trailed most of the afternoon by only one run, 2-1, with those two runs scoring entirely as a result of Gonzalez's extreme wildness.

There were plenty of opportunities where the deficit could have grown. Gonzalez himself managed to keep the damage to a relative minimum, escaping his 37-pitch nightmare of a second inning only allowing those two runs.

"I think that was a big positive," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "Instead of down, say, 5-1, we're down 2-1. We're still in the ballgame. That was a big, big job by Gio."

Which set the stage for some really big jobs performed by a Nationals bullpen that combined to throw four scoreless innings and strand five Cardinals in scoring position.

No one, of course, performed better than Ryan Mattheus, who entered facing the ultimate jam -- bases loaded, nobody out -- and somehow managed to record three outs on all of two pitches. The right-hander walked off the mound with a roar, one of several displays of emotion from Nationals players during the final, frenzied innings of this game.

"Yeah, there was definitely some emotion," Mattheus said. "That's the biggest game I've been in. Those are the biggest three outs and the two biggest pitches I've ever made. So being down one run, I wanted to pump the team up and hopefully get some momentum back in our direction."

The pendulum immediately swung back in the Nationals' favor. Their game-winning rally began with a break: shortstop Pete Kozma taking a bad hop grounder off his face (reminiscent of the Yankees' Tony Kubek late in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series) to allow Michael Morse to reach first base.

Ian Desmond, one of the few young Nationals who looked composed from the first pitch, followed with his third single of the day, but he and Morse were able to advance only one base a piece after Espinosa's surprising sacrifice bunt and Suzuki's strikeout.

With two outs now, the tying run on third and the winning run on second, Johnson sent his best pinch-hitter to the plate: Chad Tracy. The 69-year-old skipper, though, knew Tracy would never actually get into the batter's box. Sure enough, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny signaled for his bullpen, summoning his lone left-hander (Marc Rzepczynski) to face Tracy.

Johnson immediately countered, pulling Tracy back and sending to the plate 25-year-old rookie Tyler Moore, whose lack of experience is overshadowed by his ability to hit the baseball like a true pro.

"I'd rather have the veteran player in that situation than a rookie," Johnson said. "But rookies have been doing a heck of a job, and Moore has got some big hits for us, as he did tonight."

That he did. After flailing at a 2-1 pitch way out of the zone, Moore composed himself and dumped the biggest hit of his life into shallow right field. Morse and Desmond came around to score, Moore celebrated as he advanced to second base and the Nationals dugout went bezerk.

"To battle with two strikes and throw one out there in a huge situation, he picked us up," LaRoche said. "A bunch of us had opportunities today to drive some runs in and it didn't happen, so he saved all of us."

That, though, is what great teams do. That's what successful teams in October do.

Sometimes the star players deliver in the biggest spots. Sometimes it's a 28-year-old middle reliever and a 25-year-old rookie off the bench.

"That's playoff baseball," said Drew Storen, who earned the save with a 1-2-3 ninth. "Nothing goes to plan in the playoffs. The good teams are the ones that can handle it and really grind it out and get the victory. That's what we expect. We don't expect it to go by the book."

No, very little about this game went by the book. And it's entirely possible very little about the rest of this playoff run will, either.

That's just the way this works. In the regular season, a 3-2 game is completed in less than three hours and features maybe one or two moments of mild pressure. In the postseason, it takes a full 3 hours and 40 minutes, a never-ending stream of big and bigger moments where it feels like everything is on the line.

And when it's all over, everybody heads back to their team hotel, tries to get their blood pressure back to normal levels, tries to get something resembling a good night's sleep ... and comes right back to the park the next day ready for another date with the meat grinder.

Game 1 is in the books. The Nationals and their fans could experience this 18 more times before the season ends.

Hope everyone packed their beta-blockers.