Max Scherzer wanted to be a Cardinal when he grew up. That’d teach him. He got to be a Tiger for long enough. Then he got to be a very wealthy National. Earning every last dollar of his delicious contract long enough before this year’s National League Championship Series.
And thanks to himself and Anibal Sanchez making for a little deja vu all over again, the Nats are halfway to their first World Series.
Now, remember, that’s only halfway. But right now the Nats can’t be feeling anything other than that all the way won’t necessarily be the hard way, if not no way.
That was 2013: Sanchez and Scherzer were Tigers who kept the Red Sox hitless through five in back-to-back American League Championship Series games. This is 2019: they kept the Cardinals hitless through five or more in back-to-back NLCS games. The first teammates to do it once against a single team became the first to do it twice likewise.
They just hope the net result this time isn’t what it was six years ago. In 2013 the Red Sox still went all the way to a World Series triumph. In October 2019 the Nats would prefer that the Cardinals not even think about it.
Sanchez lost his would-be no-no to a pinch hitter with two out in the Game One eighth Friday night. After dueling Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright magnificently, matching him strikeout for strikeout and keeping the Redbirds unbalanced at the plate, Scherzer lost his to Cardinal first baseman Paul Goldschmidt leading off the Game Two seventh Saturday afternoon.
And, after he rid himself of the next three Cardinals swiftly enough to end his afternoon, what was Max the Knife’s reward?
Oh, nothing much except credit for a win and a late spell of hair-raising before Daniel Hudson nailed down the 3-1 final in Busch Stadium. Everything was as succulent as the Nats could ask until reliever Sean Doolittle nailed two outs to open the bottom of the eighth and Paul DeJong rapped a clean single to right center.
Then Jose Martinez pinch hit for Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, a day after he broke Sanchez’s no-no in the same role. After wrestling Doolittle to a tenth pitch, Martinez hit a nice, neat line drive right at Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor. All Taylor had to do was stand still, let the ball come right to him, hold his glove up for the catch, and breathe as he threw the ball back in.
But Taylor inexplicably pushed in a few steps, then broke right back realising he’d come in too short, and by the time he was back for a flying leap the ball flew over his outstretched glove and toward the wall. DeJong whipped his horse and galloped home with the Cardinals’ first run since the fourth inning of Game Five in their division series.
Just like that Taylor threatened to negate the first-swing leadoff yank off Wainwright that he sent about six or seven rows into the left field seats in the top of the third. Just like that, it may have felt more than a little that the Nats’ splendid, mostly self-made fortune was about to get waylaid by a tax collector.
Lucky for him and the Nats that Doolittle didn’t give the Cardinals the chance for their mostly dormant bats to awaken any further. He got Dexter Fowler to fly out almost promptly to erase the side.
And then Nats skipper Dave Martinez baffled just about everyone with Natitude except anyone paying attention to the past performance papers. With a lefthander already in the game, Martinez brought in Patrick Corbin, his already-designated Game Four starting lefthander, to open the bottom of the ninth against lefthanded hitting Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong.
Martinez remembered what the Cardinals probably wanted to forget, that Wong came to the plate having gone 0-for-5 with two strikeouts against Corbin previously. The last thing Martinez wanted was Wong reaching base somehow and turning the bases into a track meet. And, sure enough, Wong obeyed the script. On 0-1 Corbin lured him into a simple ground out to second base.
Then Martinez brought Hudson in to finish it off with Goldschmidt flying out to left and Marcell Ozuna popping out to first.
The game actually might have ended 1-0 if Cardinals manager Mike Shildt hadn’t blundered his way into a pair of Nats insurance runs in the top of the eighth. With first and second and one out, and after pitching coach Mike Maddux confabbed with Wainwright on the mound, Shildt elected to let his veteran righthander pitch to lefthanded Adam Eaton.
Eaton—who came into Game Two with a lifetime 1.169 OPS (5-for-11) against Wainwright. With the lefthanded Miller ready to go in the bullpen. Shildt paid more attention to Eaton’s so-far game-long struggle to hit in the peculiar Busch Stadium shadows than to Eaton’s history with Wainwright. And the shadows long enough progressed to the point where they weren’t quite so bothersome at the plate.
What was bothersome was Eaton ripping one right past a diving Goldschmidt at first, up the right field line, and off the sidewall, letting Matt Adams (Scherzer’s pinch hitter with a one-out double) score standing up and Trea Turner (following Adams with a shuttlecock single to right center) to follow him, Turner diving across the plate like an Olympic swimmer with the third Nats run.
That’s the way to [fornicate] up anyone getting in your Cardinals’ way, Skip.
Scherzer and Wainwright put on yet another clinic in knocking the balance to one side Saturday afternoon, each righthander leaning at least as much if not more on breaking balls just off-speed enough to keep the hard hit balls down to a minimum and keep their defenses working possible overtime. Even running several deep counts Max the Knife thrust when he absolutely had to.
“I came in and my arm didn’t feel great,” he told reporters after the game. “But around the fourth or fifth inning I felt like everything kind of loosened up in my shoulder. I was able to find my arm slot and I was driving my fastball into locations where I wanted.”
Each struck out eleven batters; each threw first-pitch strikes two-thirds of the time; it was the duel of the masters that Wainwright described before Game Two as the next best thing to an early Christmas present. It sure didn’t hurt that the odd shadows crawling across the field for a little more than half the game made things very conducive to smart, sharp pitching.
Which is exactly what both teams and their fans expect on Monday night when Game Three begins in Nationals Park. When Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals’ boy wonder who all but ruled the National League from the mound in the season’s second half, tangles with Stephen Strasburg, a former boy wonder who carries a 1.32 lifetime postseason ERA on his jacket.
And since the Nats now have three reasonably reliable bullpen bulls to call upon, it won’t be quite as simple as just hoping Flaherty knocks the bats right out of the Nats’ hands. The Nats don’t let their bats get knocked away that way for very long these days.
The Cardinals’ starting players are now 2-for-54 in the NLCS. If they don’t figure out how to recalibrate their bats and hit, and fast, Flaherty can no-hit the Nats himself including strikeouts for every out, and the Nats will still find a way to win.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our hitters,” Wainwright said after the game. “I think our hitters are going to do something special in Washington.” With Strasburg looming and Corbin right behind him in Game Four, they’d better.
Right now they’re saying, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and two from first in the National League.” The Nats are too smart, too aware of their past postseason plotzes, to let this thrill knock them off task just yet.