Agonizing loss to Cards has familiar feel for Nats (updated)

ST. LOUIS - They broke out the Greatest Hits this afternoon at Busch Stadium, with all of your least favorite moments in the history of Nationals-Cardinals matchups rolled into 2 hours and 55 minutes of agony for anyone who has ever worn a curly W cap and ecstasy for anyone who has ever donned the birds-on-the-bat jersey.

It’s not that the Nationals lost 5-1, dropping the rubber game of a key September series that was right there for the taking. It’s how they lost, in much the same manner they’ve lost so many critical games to the Cardinals over the years.

There was, in no particular order ...

* A routine fly ball lost in the sun.

* A Nationals runner thrown out at the plate by 20 feet.

* A perfectly manufactured run by the home team while the visitors squandered countless scoring opportunities.

* Clutch hits from a little-known Cardinals utility man.

* Brilliant defense from St. Louis, spoiling a last-ditch rally attempt by the Nats.

* A former Nats bust delivering a killer, pinch-hit home run off his onetime batterymate.

Scherzer-Gray@STL-sidebar.jpgIt was absolute agony for the Nationals, who had a chance to win this series and head to Miami with at least a 1 1/2-game lead over both the Cubs and the Brewers in the wild card race but instead lost a very winnable game against a fellow contender in which Max Scherzer dominated but still was charged with the loss.

“That’s what happens when you play playoff-quality teams,” said Scherzer, who wound up charged with all five runs despite looking as dominant as he has in months. “It comes down to the little stuff, so it doesn’t matter how good the big stuff is. Everyone can execute the big stuff at this point. It comes down to the fine details. That’s what kind of did me in today.”

As has been the case too often, this one came to a head late. Specifically, the seventh inning.

The Nationals trailed 2-0 at that point but were threatening to take down Adam Wainwright at last, with one out and a runner on second, at which point Chip Hale had a key decision to make.

The fill-in manager could have sent a pinch-hitter to the plate to bat for Scherzer. (His choices likely were Gerardo Parra or Andrew Stevenson from the left side, Ryan Zimmerman or Brian Dozier from the right side.) Instead, Hale chose to let his ace bat for himself.

“It’s a tough one,” Hale said. “If we get two guys on, I might pop Zim there and see if he can hit one out. But with a man on second, Max handles the bat well. He already got a hit today. And he’s a pretty good option to go back out there (for the bottom of the seventh) with a good pitch count. That’s a decision that we got together on, and we made it and we went with it.”

Scherzer would ground out to short. Moments later, Trea Turner ripped a double down the left field line to score Yan Gomes and trim the deficit to 2-1. But when Dexter Fowler made a twisting catch of Adam Eaton’s subsequent drive to the warning track to end the inning, the deficit remained. And more disaster loomed.

Scherzer cruised in his final frame and appeared to be on his way to his best start since returning from the injured list: seven innings of two-run ball, with 11 strikeouts and zero walks. Except he never got the necessary 21st out, because Juan Soto lost Paul DeJong’s fly ball to left in the sun. DeJong coasted into second base with a double Scherzer didn’t deserve to have charged to his name.

“I mean, it’s really bad,” Soto said when asked how helpess he felt in the moment. “You just got to keep going and try to ... maybe if it comes out of the sun. For me, I think I was trying to let the ball outside of the sun, like try to be on the other side, but I got there too late. And that just happens.”

You know what happened next. Tommy Edman, the rookie third baseman/right fielder, sent a two-out, opposite-field RBI single to extend the lead to 3-1. And moments later, Matt Wieters (Scherzer’s former batterymate) came up to pinch-hit and drilled a hanging curveball to right to make it a 5-1 game and send Scherzer to the showers.

“I was gassed and hung a curveball,” said Scherzer, who finished with 109 pitches, the most he had thrown since June 30, before he injured his back.

Asked if he considered pulling Scherzer at any point during that inning, Hale essentially conceded he had a lack of reliable arms in the bullpen that would have given his team a better chance at that point than a tired ace.

“Is he the best option at that point, even with that pitch count? I think so,” Hale said. “He’s got strikeout stuff. He needs to get just one more out. Edman got him again with a nice base hit to left field. And then he probably made a bad pitch on Wieters, but Matty got him. You think about it, all those things. I’m not going to tell you you don’t. But I think, at that point, he’s our best option.”

The Nationals would mount another rally in the eighth, putting two on with one out. Asdrúbal Cabrera launched a ball deep to right field that could’ve been a three-run homer and brought the visitors back within a run, but Fowler made a perfectly timed, leaping catch to rob him and kill that notion.

The Nats (83-68) went down quietly after that, losing for the 10th time in their last 16 games and leaving the wild card race very much up for grabs into the final week and a half of the season.

“That’s a home run, and he takes it back,” Hale said. “But that’s good defense. You got to understand this is what’s going to happen when you play really good teams. So just keep battling, keep grinding and some balls will fall for you.”

Scherzer has always enjoyed pitching in his hometown, and he had to be particularly motivated to pitch here today, attempting both to help lead his team to a much-needed series victory and confirm that he has fully returned from his midsummer back injury.

It was clear from the get-go that he has fully returned. Scherzer retired the side in the first inning on 14 pitches, 11 of them fastballs ranging between 95-97 mph. He continued to mow down the Cardinals lineup, retiring the first seven batters he faced.

“Really felt I had good mechanics today,” he said. “Really was under control with my body. ... For me, all the pitches were really playing up today, and I like where my stuff is at.”

But there was a mistake, if you can call it that, in the third. With the count 1-2 on Edman, Scherzer threw a cutter down and in. The rookie turned on it and sent it flying into the right field bullpen for a solo homer and a 1-0 lead for St. Louis.

Scherzer would shrug that one off and get right back to work, retiring the next five batters he faced before Matt Carpenter led off the fifth with a double. The Cardinals then started playing The Cardinal Way, manufacturing their second run of the day without hitting another ball out of the infield.

Yadier Molina, after two failed bunt attempts, grounded out to the right side to advance Carpenter to third. Manager Mike Schildt then sent Harrison Bader out to pinch-run for Carpenter - in the fifth inning of a 1-0 game - and watched as he scored without a throw on DeJong’s little dribbler between the mound and first base.

With five innings in the books, Scherzer had allowed only two batters to reach base, but both had scored.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Nationals had put eight runners on base in their first six innings against Wainwright, but had failed to bring any of them home. There were opportunities, some golden ones. And there were mistakes made along the way.

The most egregious came in the top of the second, when with two on and two out Scherzer singled to right. Bob Henley waved around Victor Robles, even though Edman was playing so shallow he could almost be mistaken for a shifted second baseman. The throw beat Robles to the plate by 20 feet, ending the inning in agonizing fashion.

“With Victor and with Trea, when they’re on second base and they get their secondary (lead) and they go, they’re tough to throw out,” Hale said. “You have to make a perfect throw. Now, the pitcher’s up, the right fielder’s in pretty close. In retrospect, you look back and Vic didn’t get a great jump off the bag. But I think with two outs, Wainwright has been pitching fantastic. ... So you’re trying to get something there. The guy’s got to make a good throw. And Edman out in right, who doesn’t play much outfield, does it again.”

Of course Edman did. He has now etched his name into the lore of Nationals-Cardinals baseball. He’ll be forever beloved in St. Louis for it. And he’ll be forever cursed in Washington, just the latest to join that list.

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