ST. LOUIS - The Nationals and Cardinals played an incredibly tight, entertaining five-game postseason series last fall. This year, the Cardinals pushed the Nats around, winning all six games between the teams in sweeping the season series.
Coming into this three-game set at Busch Stadium, the Nats had hoped to keep their slim postseason chances alive into the final series of the season in Arizona. Then, after getting eliminated from the playoff picture Monday, they hoped to play the spoiler role and deliver a blow to the Cardinals' hopes of winning the National League Central. Now, after today's 4-1 loss, the Nats leave town on the losing end of a demoralizing three-game sweep.
"I tell ya, they just kicked our butt in just about every aspect of the game," manager Davey Johnson said. "I tip my hat to them. (Cardinals manager Mike) Matheny has done a good job over there. I wish them luck. They kind of had their way with us. I thought (Jordan Zimmermann) pitched a pretty good ballgame, kept us in there. Three runs, one run, no runs, kind of tough."
Is it possible that the Cardinals have some kind of mental edge over the Nats at this point where they're in guys' heads?
"The proof is in the pudding, how you go out and play," Johnson said. "I kept my regular lineup in there because I wanted us to stand up and show them we're better. But we couldn't do that. You can say we're out of it and all that. But there's a certain amount of pride that comes in when you play these kind of games. They're still in it. This club is used to being a spoiler. But we didn't that well.
"That hurts a little bit, because I wanted to beat them bad. I'll leave it up for grabs in Arizona. If the guys have had enough, I'll go with some rookies. But this is the series we had to show them we're the Washington Nationals, we're a hell of a ballclub."
The Nats weren't blown out in any of the six games against the Cardinals this season, getting outscored in the season series by 11 runs. No game between these two teams was decided by more than three runs.
But the Cardinals just played much more well-rounded games, getting timely hits, strong starting pitching and solid bullpen work.
"They're a little more veteran type players," Johnson said. "You lead by example. A lot of the guys on the field lead by example. They beat us without arguably their best hitter (Allen Craig) in the lineup. We'll regroup. We're a heck of an organization. A heck of a ballclub. We'll come back next year. I wanted to get a little statement here. Unfortunately, we were unable to do that."
Zimmermann gets the loss in his final start of the season, leaving him with a 19-9 record and a 3.25 ERA. The Nats had wanted to help the right-hander get to the 20-win mark, but it wasn't to be.
"He's a great pitcher and had a great year," Johnson said. "I feel bad for him we didn't score more runs and at least make it a contest, give him a chance to win. But maybe next year."
Four of the six hits Zimmermann gave up today came when he had two strikes on the batter, including a fourth-inning Matt Adams double that set up Yadier Molina's two-run single, and a sixth-inning solo homer by Adams.
"A veteran hitter knows what they're looking for," Johnson said. "They stay within their zone. We chase balls out of the strike zone all day long, and these guys don't. They're disciplined. We need to learn from that. It's kind of a learning experience if you want to be a really great ball club. You learn from your failures as well as you learn from your successes. This whole series was a good example of that."
The Nats struggled against Cardinals pitching all series long, putting up just four runs in these three games.
"When you're not selective and you don't have good at-bats, it can flip in a heartbeat," Johnson said. "We didn't have as many quality at-bats as they did. It's that simple. I don't care however you cut it, they put more quality at-bats up there the whole series, all year long. We need to learn from that.
"I didn't think (Cardinals starter Shelby Miller) had too much. I thought he was all over the place. He really wasn't setting up his pitches. We really helped him out in a lot of situations. But he's got a good arm. All of them have good arms. When they have little command issues, we need to make them pay. We didn't."