Remember that time a Nationals starting pitcher flirted with a no-hitter in the National League Championship Series in St. Louis? No, not the first time it happened. The second time it happened. The very next day.
Of all the remarkable things the Nats did during their postseason run last October, the back-to-back no-hit bids by AnÃbal SÃ¡nchez and Max Scherzer certainly deserve to sit high on the list. Making it all the more remarkable: That same duo did the exact same thing in Games 1 and 2 of the 2013 ALCS for the Tigers against the Red Sox! I mean, what are the odds?
SÃ¡nchez set the bar awfully high with his Game 1 performance at Busch Stadium, finally surrendering his first hit with two outs in the eighth. Scherzer wouldn't quite get there the following afternoon in Game 2, but he did reach the seventh inning and ultimately departed having allowed one measly hit while helping the Nats pull off a 3-1 win over the Cardinals to seize control of the best-of-seven series.
Scherzer clearly was the storyline entering the Saturday afternoon showdown against veteran Adam Wainwright. TBS didn't hold back playing up the fact Scherzer grew up in suburban St. Louis, showing old Little League photos of him and insisting this start must have meant more to him than most. (Scherzer, for the record, repeatedly insisted it did not.)
After the events of Game 1, the pressure was squarely on the Cardinals to even the series. "This is a game the St. Louis Cardinals, in my opinion, have to win," analyst Ron Darling said during TBS' opening segment. In hindsight, he was probably right, because by day's end the Cards were basically dead in the water.
Once the game began, the dominant storyline became the shadows that engulfed the plate and slowly made their way toward the mound during the early portion of a contest that began at the odd local time of 3:08 p.m. The announcing crew kept mentioning the shadows at every opportunity, but it felt appropriate because it was clear to anyone watching the hitters could not pick up pitches with any consistency.
To wit: Only two of the game's first 29 batters recorded a base hit, both of them Nationals. Anthony Rendon ripped a line drive single to left with two outs in the top of the first but never advanced beyond that. Two innings later, Michael A. Taylor ensured nobody else would need to drive him in by doing it himself.
Taylor, starting in center field in place of the still-injured Victor Robles for the fifth straight game, pounced on Wainwright's first pitch in the top of the third and lofted the ball high and deep to left field for the third postseason homer of his career. That solo shot would hold up as the game's lone run until the top of the eighth, further evidence of both the daunting shadows but also the daunting right-handers who took advantage of the pitcher-friendly conditions.
Scherzer would claim afterward he didn't feel great right away, struggling to find the right arm slot. It didn't show in any way, because he went right after the Cardinals lineup with mid-90s fastballs and quality sliders and changeups.
Only two batters reached base through six innings, each via walk. Kolton Wong got on board with one out in the first and then stole second off Scherzer and Kurt Suzuki (back in the lineup after missing Game 1), but was stranded there when Scherzer struck out Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna to end the inning.
Those fearsome 3-4 hitters carried the Cardinals during their NL Division Series victory over the Braves, but they couldn't do anything in the NLCS. Nobody in the lineup could. At one point, St. Louis' regulars were a combined 0-for-45 in the series, the lone hit coming from pinch-hitter JosÃ© MartÃnez late in Game 1.
And yet the Nats never felt like they were in full control because both games were low-scoring and capable of flipping on one bad pitch. They were just as baffled by Wainwright as the Cardinals were of Scherzer, never more so than during a 1-2-3 top of the fourth that saw Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick strike out in succession with a string of awkward swings that suggested they couldn't pick up anything coming out of Wainwright's hand.
They would squander another opportunity in the sixth after Trea Turner delivered a leadoff single. Wainwright proceeded to strike out Adam Eaton, Rendon and Soto in succession, and the announcers noted how Soto (0-for-3 with three strikeouts) hadn't done his patented shuffle once during the game after ticking off some of the Cardinals the previous night. Was it that, or was the kid just out of whack at the plate?
Anyway, the game reached the bottom of the seventh, the no-hitter still intact for Scherzer - for a moment longer. It would end on a line drive single to left by Goldschmidt, a ball that one-hopped Soto, who thought about attempting a diving catch but elected to play it safe. And probably for the best, because the ball might well have rolled to the wall for a leadoff triple in a one-run game.
Now, though, came a sight that surely caused a few hearts to flutter around the DMV: Fernando Rodney was warming up in the bullpen. With the Nats up 1-0 in the seventh. And Scherzer on the mound. Davey Martinez wouldn't, would he?
We never found out, because Scherzer - perhaps seeing Rodney warming in the bullpen with the Nats up 1-0 in the seventh - made sure it would never happen. He struck out Ozuna on three pitches, then got Yadier Molina to ground into a killer 6-4-3 double play to end the inning and send Rodney back to the bullpen bench.
The ace stalked off the mound having allowed one hit over seven scoreless innings, his work for the day done.
The outcome of the game, of course, was still very much up in the air. The Nationals desperately needed some insurance. And they got it in the top of the eighth, which saw some curious moves (or, more accurately, non-moves) by both managers.
Matt Adams, pinch-hitting for Scherzer, drove a ball to right field that looked like a homer off the bat but rattled off the wall. Adams, hardly fleet of foot, had to hold to a single. It seemed the perfect opportunity for a pinch-runner, but with Robles still injured, Martinez left Adams out there, choosing not to burn up Gerardo Parra or Brian Dozier. That could have cost the Nationals, because Adams could only take second base on Turner's bloop single to center.
It would not come back to haunt them, though, thanks to a great at-bat from Eaton against Wainwright, who inexplicably remained on the mound despite the presence of a ready Andrew Miller in the St. Louis bullpen. It wasn't quite as bad as Dave Roberts leaving Joe Kelly in through the top of the 10th at Dodger Stadium three nights earlier, but it was close.
Eaton made Mike Shildt pay for it with a double just inside the first base line that brought home both Adams and Turner and extended the Nationals' lead to 3-0. It was a sweet moment of redemption for Eaton, who had looked lost at the plate all day against Wainwright, but finally found success by channeling the advice of an unlikely '90s sitcom guru.
"Everything I was thinking, they did the opposite," Eaton said in describing Wainwright's pitching approach against him during the game. "So I was thinking 3-2 should be a heater here. And I'm like, well, that's the opposite, so I should George Costanza it and just go ahead and sit breaking ball. And that's what happened. George was right, and I happened to be right."
Like a bunch of old men trying to send back soup in a deli, Cardinals fans sounded like they'd had enough as Shildt finally pulled his starter and went to Miller at least one batter too late. (Miller, naturally, retired Soto and Kendrick to end the inning.)
The Nationals still needed to get six outs from their bullpen to finish this off. Martinez started with Sean Doolittle, fresh off his four-out save the previous night. Doolittle's bottom of the eighth featured a few harrowing moments. Eaton broke late on Tommy Edman's liner to deep right but recovered in time to make a leaping catch for the second out.
Then, after a two-out single, MartÃnez reached out and lined an outside pitch to center. Taylor, reading the off-balance swing, broke in because he figured the ball wasn't well-struck. Then he realized it was sailing over his head. He couldn't recover in time, and suddenly the Cardinals had their first run of the series and the tying run at the plate.
His pitch count at 20, Doolittle might have been showing some signs of fatigue. But Dexter Fowler bailed him out by swinging at the first pitch he saw and flying out to right to end the eighth with the score 3-1.
Daniel Hudson, back from his one-day paternity leave, was ready to go for the ninth. But with the left-handed Wong leading off, Martinez decided instead to use Patrick Corbin out of the bullpen for the third time in six days. It took the lefty all of two pitches to retire Wong and hit the showers after a hard day's work (or not).
Now came Hudson to face the two big righties. He got away with a hanging slider to Goldschmidt, who skied a ball to left field for the second out. He then got Ozuna to pop up on the first pitch, ending the game. Corbin and Hudson wound up recording three outs in the bottom of the ninth on a grand total of six pitches.
And so the Nationals again exchanged high-fives in the middle of the diamond as a stunned crowd shuffled quietly out of the stadium. They had won four in a row, 14 of 16 overall dating to the final week of the regular season.
And now they were coming home for the first time since Game 4 of the NLDS. That night, they were staring elimination in the face. Now, they were staring at something entirely unexpected only days earlier: the NL pennant. All they needed to do was win two of their next five games. They wouldn't come close to needing all of them.