If nothing else, the Nationals have shown through the season’s first week-plus they don’t easily roll over. Six times in their first eight games, they came from behind to at least tie things up.
So it wasn’t surprising this evening when, despite trailing by three runs late and showing few signs of life to that point, the Nationals again made things interesting.
They couldn’t complete the comeback this time, stranding the potential tying runners on base during a furious bottom-of-the-eighth rally. Maybe it was for the best, though, because the Cardinals piled on in the top of the ninth and wound up with an easy 6-1 victory.
Presented with an opportunity to sweep St. Louis, the Nationals instead went silent at the plate in their series finale, shut out for seven innings by Mike Leake before finally making some noise in the eighth against the opposing bullpen.
Three straight singles by Wilmer Difo, Adam Lind and Adam Eaton trimmed the deficit to 3-1 and brought Anthony Rendon to the plate with two on and one out. Rendon, who had slogged his way through a rough game at the end of a rough week, hustled enough down the line to avoid a killer, inning-ending double play but still left it up to Bryce Harper with two outs.
Harper battled reliever Brett Cecil through a tense at-bat before lining a 3-2 changeup to third baseman Jedd Gyorko, slamming both his bat and his helmet to the ground as the inning ended and the crowd of 31,647 groaned.
Any hope of a ninth-inning rally was then quashed when Joe Blanton served up a three-run homer to Stephen Piscotty in the top of the inning, turning this game into a rout. It was the ninth home run allowed by Nationals relievers in nine games this season; starters have allowed only one.
The Nationals actually looked prime for a big day at the plate early against Leake. Two batters in, they already had two hits and runners on the corners for the heart of their lineup.
But then Leake made a routine pickoff throw to first base and Rendon casually went back in, not bothering to slide. Umpire Lance Barrett initially ruled Rendon safe, but Cardinals manager Mike Matheny asked for a review and wound up getting the call overturned.
Little could the Nationals have realized at that extremely early juncture of the game it would have been their best chance to inflict some damage on Leake. Harper proceeded to strike out, Daniel Murphy grounded out back to the mound, and the Nats stranded a man on third base in disappointing fashion.
All Leake did after that was retire 19 batters in a row, fooling them with sliders down and away and perhaps taking advantage of the late-afternoon shadows that made it difficult for hitters to see the ball. Murphy finally ended that run with a two-out single in the seventh, extending his season-opening hit streak to nine games.
The Cardinals didn’t inflict a whole lot of damage on Max Scherzer, but they did take advantage of mistakes made both by the right-hander and by others wearing Nationals uniforms.
Scherzer uncharacteristically issued two walks, hit a batter and was charged with three wild pitches, he and catcher Matt Wieters seemingly unable to get on the same page at times. Difo, the third-string shortstop pressed into starting duties with both Trea Turner and Stephen Drew on the disabled list, also was charged with an error that opened the floodgates for a two-run top of the fifth.
In spite of his obvious lack of crispness, Scherzer nonetheless finished with 10 strikeouts and only one earned allowed in six innings, raising his pitch count into triple-digits for the first time in 2017.