“Today, for us, was a must-win game . . . “

Beltran (3) has all hands on his deck and decking the Nats . . .

Sunday’s division series opener saw the Washington Nationals squeeze out a win with not an extra base hit between themselves and the St. Louis Cardinals. Monday saw the Cardinals even things up, and how, in the set, by way of a 12-4 burial featuring nine extra base hits, seven off St. Louis bats, and some fatal miscues by these Nats who didn’t make too many such miscues in piling up baseball’s best regular-season record.

When Carlos Beltran parked his second bomb of the day in the left field seats in the St. Louis eighth to make it 11-4, Redbirds, it merely seemed like adding insult to injury.┬áThen Nats left fielder Michael Morse bobbled away Allen Craig’s two-out double, allowing Matt Holliday to round third and score the twelfth and final run.

After Game One, there were observers enough suggesting the Cardinals’ season hung in the balance suddenly and deeply. “Today, for us, was a must-win game,” Beltran himself said after the Game Two carnage finally ended.

It left the Nats to think hard about their lost opportunities on the day but harder about coming away with a road split to start their first division series and better than modest chances of taking the set yet when returning to their own sumptuous playpen Wednesday.

They’d have to be thinking that if nothing else. The later Sunday’s game went on, the further off came the wheels of the Nats. By the St. Louis eighth, the Nats’ defenders looked like Cardinal offenders, their bats looked like worn brooms, and manager Davey Johnson, who usually has one of the best bullpens in the league upon which to call, looked like a man in search of something more than just bull, when his starter Jordan Zimmermann ran out of fuel—or, more important, zone, failing to work both sides while over-relying on his fastball against the fastball-hitting Cardinals—early enough.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, on the other hand, could call upon just enough more stoutness when his own starter Jaime Garcia emptied his tank early enough. Marry that to the Cardinal bats on the day and the Nats may have been lucky to escape St. Louis with the opening split.

They’d taken a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second, thanks to a little basepath bravery from Ian Desmond as Nats’ starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, perhaps to everyone’s surprise, singled to right with Desmond (leadoff single) and Danny Espinosa (walk) aboard. Third base coach Bo Porter held up a stop sign. Desmond played scofflaw, as though he thought Porter was kidding. And he beat the throw home, setting the Nats up for a delicious threat for more.

But Jayson Werth flied out to left and Bryce Harper swished out for the second time in the game, and swish went the big inning possibility. For that matter, swish went the game. The Nats never led again and the Cardinals feasted on them like vultures more than Redbirds, and it only began in the bottom of the second, with the Cardinals’ two biggest 2011 World Series pests, Craig and David Freese, right in the middle of the ack-ack again.

As in, four unanswered hits, including an infield beat-out to open (Craig) and an RBI double (Freese, with the set’s first extra base hit) surrounding a second single (Yadier Molina) and preceding a third single and second RBI hit (Daniel Descalso, dumping one to shallow right to cash in Molina), before Zimmermann finally picked up an out, swishing out Pete Kozma.

Unfortunately further, Skip Schumaker pinch hitting for St. Louis starter Jaime Garcia hit a smash to the hole at third that Desmond knocked down smartly, throwing him out daringly as Freese scored. Then Jon Jay sent home Descalso with a clean single, and only Jay getting thrown out just as smartly while trying to take second kept the Cardinals from piling on more than the four they scored.

If it didn’t look good for the Cardinals when Garcia lost his wheels early enough, it looked a lot better for them once they’d relieved Zimmermann of his.

Craig wasn’t about to play dead for the upstarts. He ripped a two-out liner right inside the left field foul pole on a 1-1 count to add a fifth Cardinal run in the third. As he rounded the bases he must have remembered his mates had dropped the first game in each of the Cardinals’ 2011 early rounds—and still went on to win the pennant and the Series.

Descalso wanted in on the fun, too, after reliever Lance Lynn dodged the Nats in the top of the fourth and Zimmermann yielded to a pinch hitter (Roger Bernadina) stranded after a two-out walk. Leading off the bottom against Craig Stammen, Descalso looked at strike one, took ball one, then hammered one just over the right field fence.

Lynn himself pitched in, no pun intended, when he dropped a virtuoso bunt with Pete Kozma (walk, after the Descalso bomb) running on the pitch and Kozma ground his way to third alertly, coming home when Jay whacked a hopper that ricocheted off the cut of the grass near second, with the Nats playing in for a shot at the plate, and let Kozma scurry home when Espinosa couldn’t handle the hopper bouncing off his glove. Then Jay swiped second before Stammen lost Beltran to a walk.

The Nats entered the set with vaunted pitching, with or without Stephen Strasburg, and now they were compromising a first-blood Game One win with their pitching falling almost completely apart. Then, they tried to strike back in the top of the fifth.

Ryan Zimmerman sent one off the end of the bat and over the left center field fence with one out (Harper, striking out for an unfathomable third time in the game) against Lynn in the fifth. Adam LaRoche said, “I’ll see and raise,” post haste, sending one over the right center field fence right on top of it. Michael Morse and Desmond did their best to continue the barrage but both their flies landed in St. Louis gloves, Desmond’s on the track, and the Cardinals escaped with their advantage shrunken to a mere four.

On the other hand, they probably thought they could re-fatten the advantage when Nats reliever Christian Garcia began overthrowing his breaking balls, which began to look like the only pitch he seemed confident in trusting, walking the first two Cardinals (Molina, Freese) of the fifth after spelling Stammen to pound a strikeout in on Craig to close the fourth. But Garcia got Descalso to dial Area Code 6-4-3, the throw from Espinosa to first barely beating Descalso as LaRoche looked to be pulled off the bag a hair, before fighting Kozma into a full-count strikeout for the side.

Jay made perhaps the play of the day opening the top of the sixth, when he ran down Espinosa’s first-pitch, leadoff drive to the back of the park, leaping the wall to grab what would have been a double at least before it hit the padding for the ricochet in. Joe Kelly, normally a starter but pressed into bullpen service for the Cardinals, shook out a heavy sigh of relief as Jay made the haul, then dispatched Kurt Suzuki (grounder to shortstop) and Steve Lombardozzi (pinch hitting for Garcia, lining out to shortstop) for quick work.

Then Beltran made perhaps the rip of the day in the bottom, with Mike Gonzalez spelling Garcia on the mound and ridding himself of pinch hitter (for Kelly) Shane Robinson and Jay with fly outs on the opposite corners. Beltran fought Gonzalez to a 2-2 count including four straight fouls, one barely missing being an extra base hit, then yanked one off the upper deck facade behind left field, ahead of Matt Holliday’s inning-ending strikeout.

It took Beltran a mere six years to hit his twelfth postseason bomb. It took him a mere two innings more to collect number thirteen, that one a two-run shot landing merely in the seats.

Harper finally cracked out of his series-opening slump with Werth aboard on a leadoff single up the pipe in the seventh off Edward Mujica, slicing one likewise up the pipe and hustling his way into a double. But with his team down five, Harper got desperate to make something happen now that he had the chance.

With Werth coming home on Zimmerman’s sacrifice fly to left, cutting the Cardinals’ lead to four, Holliday inexplicably made a weak throw in, giving Harper a thought about trying a little of his own patented basepath derring-do. Except that, somehow, Descalso managed to wing it to Kozma covering third, and Kozma winged Harper out on the round. LaRoche fouled to right to finish ending the threat, but the Nats had to hope they’d punctured the Cardinals’ armour just enough to leave room for one of their oft-remarked, late-game comebacks.

Ryan Mattheus treated the Cardinals to something they hadn’t had since the first inning, a one-two-three frame. The Cardinals, in turn, treated the Nats to Mitchell Boggs, Game One’s loser, also opening against Michael Morse. And Morse singled to right to open, with Espinosa one out later shooting one off Descalso’s glove and into right for a hit. One out after that, alas, Chad Tracy—the Nats’ best pinch hitter on the season—popped out to Freese behind third, and pop went that push.

Except that pop went the Nats’ last faint hopes when a pair of outfield miscues on semi-routine base hits allowed the Cardinals to tack on their ninth through eleventh runs. The second was the one that hurt, Werth unable to find a handle on Jay’s drive to right, turning it into a triple and enabling Kozma (a double abetted by Morse’s losing the ball in the left field corner) to come home. And then Beltran, who’d already added insult to injury, added traction to injury.

He picked the absolute right time to revive himself, after doing a lot of the carrying for the Cardinals in the first half of the season but tapering off somewhat in the second half.

The good news for the Nats: They didn’t have to face Jason Motte in the ninth. The bad news: Trevor Robinson might as well have been Motte, flicking Zimmerman’s two-out single away like a mere gnat to finish what he started and strike out the side.

They don’t want to look like gnats when they get home Wednesday. They’re going to send Edwin Jackson up against Chris Carpenter, who gave the Cardinals a spiritual boost with his late-season return and looked like a reasonable enough impression of his once-formidable self.

Any further impressions such as that Wednesday and the Nats—who’ve charmed the living daylights out of baseball and the nation this year, thus far—will be looking into a very dire mirror, with little enough charm, indeed.

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