Ted Leavengood: Nats’ first playoff win a Tilt-a-Whirl ride

In the postseason, the highs are higher, the lows are lower. Like Tom Boswell said in his Sunday morning column, the playoffs are the “myocardial infarction games,” a Tilt-a-Whirl ride that seesaws the emotions up, down and all around. True to form, when Jayson Werth came to bat in the first inning of the first playoff game ever in Nationals history, the hearts of the collective fan base were beating about 200 strokes per minute.

Then Ian Desmond got the first base hit in the second inning and it was suddenly a regular ballgame. The butterflies almost vanished completely when Kurt Suzuki brought the first run in Nationals playoff history across the plate. It seemed almost like a normal day at the park for a few minutes, but then the Tilt-a-Whirl took off again. The stomach was up for the top of the inning, then right back down in the shoes for the bottom of the inning.

Gio Gonzalez took the mound with a one-run lead in the bottom of the second and needed a GPS to find his way back to the dugout before it was all over. The strike zone disappeared from view for him and he never really found it. He issued four walks in the second inning and with a wild pitch thrown in for good measure, the Cardinals scored two runs without even a single. The Nats were down 2-1.

The game settled down, way down. Adam Wainwright had a devastating curveball that had every Nationals batter swinging and missing all day. He struck out 10 in less than six innings. Gonzalez was not sharp, but he gave up only one hit. He walked seven, however, and threw 110 pitches in only five innings.

Yet he somehow managed to keep the Nationals within striking distance. He started a string of Nationals pitchers who bent, but never quite broke, never quite let the game get away like it had twice in St. Louis exactly a week ago.

Craig Stammen made it through one inning with the help of a great homer-robbing catch by Jayson Werth in a tough sun field. Then Stammen bent about as far as he could. He loaded the bases on a rare Adam LaRoche error, a single and a hit batter. Davey Johnson brought in Ryan Mattheus to keep the Nationals close.

Mattheus turned in one of the great innings of his career. He threw only two pitches to get out of one of the most stressful situations any Nationals pitcher has faced all year. A sharp grounder to Desmond nipped a runner at the plate. One out. On the next pitch, Mattheus got a double play grounder from Yadier Molina. Hard to believe, but it’s still a 2-1 ballgame.

The pitchers were keeping the Nationals close but the offense could not score. Hope got up off the floor when Roger Bernadina walked to load the bases in the sixth inning. Then it came crashing back down when Werth struck out to end the rally.

The eighth inning presented one last chance. Michael Morse got aboard on an error and Desmond got his third hit of the game to put runners on first and third. Danny Espinosa laid down a bunt, but only Desmond could advance, putting runners on second and third. Suzuki struck out for the second out of the inning. It was up to Tyler Moore batting for Chad Tracy.

Moore is only a rookie who has seen sparing action of late. He is the power hitter with the deep southern drawl who can hit a fastball all the way to Mississippi. But on Sunday afternoon, he managed to flare a ball into right field with just enough on it to land free for a single. Morse and Desmond both came in to score and the Nationals were ahead 3-2. Emotions soared, leaving the dark depths of depression behind for the first time in six innings, but with caution. Six outs to go.

The Cardinals are one of the best hitting teams in the National League and they proved that point scoring 26 runs against the Nationals last weekend in St. Louis. And just as worrisome, Tyler Clippard has not been the same pitcher who posted 32 saves during the summer months. But he showed immense heart after a Ryan Zimmerman error put the leadoff hitter aboard. He got the next three batters to preserve the Nationals’ precarious lead. Three outs to go.

In the bottom of the ninth, still clinging to a single-run lead, Drew Storen had one of the easiest innings of the day. He got two fly ball outs and then struck out Matt Holliday on three pitches to end the game. It was like getting off a roller coaster where you check to see if all the parts are still there. You laugh a bit uneasily because you still remember how you begged for your mother in the tunnel of death.

Are we ready for another ride? You bet we are. Get a good bottle of scotch and strap on the seat belt. The second game begins tomorrow at 4:30 p.m.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released last June. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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