Behind another gem, Nats take commanding lead in NLCS (updated)

ST. LOUIS - Another day, another no-hit bid by a member of the Big Four rotation. And thanks to those dynamite performances, plus a couple of clutch hits and more lights-out work from the back end of the bullpen, the Nationals are heading home in complete control of the National League Championship Series.

If they win two of their next five games, they’re going to the World Series.

As closer Daniel Hudson put it earlier today - on a completely different, and far more important, matter: “Hey, life comes at you fast, man.”

Yes, it does. A Nationals team that had to win three elimination games in eight days just to survive the wild card game and NL Division Series, now holds a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS thanks to today’s 3-1 victory over the Cardinals.

In shutting down St. Louis twice in 24 hours at Busch Stadium, the once-underdog Nationals are now in a wholly unfamiliar position. For the first time in 2019, they’re in the driver’s seat, heading home to play Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) before what should be a raucous gathering on South Capitol Street that now could see its hometown team capture its first pennant live and in the flesh.

“I mean, the atmosphere in the playoffs at Nationals Park has been incredible,” Max Scherzer said. “They come out and they go nuts from the first pitch. So I have a feeling it’s even going to be more crazy, given what we have done.”

The scene Monday night is going to be like that because of what Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez did in St. Louis, each carrying a no-hitter into at least the seventh inning, Scherzer not quite duplicating his rotation mate’s 7 2/3-inning bid from Game 1, but dominating more than enough for seven frames of one-hit ball.

Over the course of a 101-pitch start, Scherzer held the Cardinals to two walks and Paul Goldschmidt’s leadoff single in the seventh. He let one runner reach scoring position.

“Yeah, he was dynamite,” manager Davey Martinez said.

And Scherzer got three big runs of support, the first supplied by Michael A. Taylor, whose third-inning homer represented the game’s entire offensive output through the seventh.

The Nationals would then get two critical tack-on runs via Adam Eaton’s double down the right field line off a 3-2 curveball from Adam Wainwright, the veteran St. Louis hurler who was nearly as good as Scherzer today but was trusted by manager Mike Schildt to try to get through the top of the eighth and could not do it.

“Everything I was thinking, they did the opposite,” said Eaton, who had gone 0-for-3 versus Wainwright. “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.”

His team now up 3-0, Martinez turned the game over to his two trusted relievers - plus one starter-turned-reliever for one batter.

Sean Doolittle pitched the eighth, and it turned a bit harrowing, especially when Taylor misplayed José Martínez’s line drive to center, the ball sailing over his leaping attempt and rolling to the wall for an RBI double to give the Cardinals their first run of the series in its 17th inning.

“Initially off the bat, I was thinking it was a blooper,” Taylor said. “It was so loud, I couldn’t hear it off the bat. So I was just trying to read the swing. I saw him out in front, kind of reaching for that. So I was expecting the ball to land out in front. And then at that point, I was in a bad position and kind of reacting to the ball.”

No problem. Doolittle got Dexter Fowler to pop up on the very next pitch. Patrick Corbin, the Game 4 starter, then started the ninth and got the left-handed Kolten Wong to ground out on two pitches before handing the ball to Hudson.

“Why not?” Corbin said of his third relief appearance this postseason. “Might as well see if I can help out during these games.”

Hudson, who missed Game 1 while in Phoenix with his wife, Sara, for the birth of their daughter, Millie, may have been short on sleep. But he was ready for the assignment. He retired Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna to earn the save and send his teammates on a very happy flight home.

“It’s been great,” Hudson said of the reception he got upon returning to the clubhouse today. “As soon as I walked in, everybody was excited to see me. Hugs all around, high fives all around. Lot of guys asking me how everybody’s doing. It’s been great, top to bottom. Couldn’t ask for better guys to be around.”

Longtime competitors and admirers of each other, Scherzer and Wainwright had gone head-to-head in this very ballpark only 24 days ago. Both right-handers were excellent that afternoon, but Wainwright emerged on top after allowing only one run in seven innings to Scherzer’s five runs 6 2/3 innings (three of those coming after Juan Soto lost a fly ball in the sun that should’ve ended the ace’s outing on a high note).

The stakes were much higher when they met again today, this time with late October shadows slowly overtaking the field to make the already difficult task for hitters even tougher. And it showed.

Taylor-HR-Swing-NLCS-Sidebar.jpgOnly four of the game’s first 34 batters reached base safely, and Taylor was responsible for half of those. The fill-in center fielder, making his fifth straight start in place of the injured Victor Robles, led off the top of the third with a high fly ball to left that just kept going and cleared the wall by a few feet for his third career postseason homer.

“Off the bat, I knew I barreled it,” said Taylor, who added an infield single in his second at-bat. “I knew I hit it pretty well. I didn’t really follow the ball, so I wasn’t sure quite how high it was going to go. But, yeah, the ball hasn’t really been flying here, so I was running hard out of the box, expecting anything to happen.”

Nobody else could do anything at the plate. Wainwright kept the Nationals completely off-balance with his wide-ranging repertoire of pitches that move, showing off his late-career reinvention. The Nats never put a man in scoring position against him through seven innings, nor did they draw any walks.

Scherzer, though, was ever so slightly better. He battled some early command issues, walking Wong on four pitches in the bottom of the first, but the only real damage that resulted in was a high pitch count (51 after three innings).

Scherzer found his groove during the middle innings, retiring 16 batters in a row during one prolonged stretch. He painted the corners with his fastball and slider, striking out 11. And he began getting quick outs later on, getting through his final three innings on only 34 pitches.

“Just throwing up zeros,” Scherzer said. “It’s a 1-0 game. It’s razor-thin out there. I’m really thinking: ‘Don’t give up a solo shot.’ Just trying to work with (catcher Kurt Suzuki) and just navigate through this lineup. Just stay in the moment.”

And so another Nationals starter put together another no-hit bid, this one reaching the seventh inning. And then Goldschmidt, previously 2-for-27 with 16 strikeouts in his career against Scherzer, sent a sinking liner to left, and Soto had to decide whether to attempt a diving catch or to let the ball fall.

Soto chose to let the ball fall in, giving up the potential of a no-hitter in exchange for not risking a preventable triple in a 1-0 game.

“I thought it was too low,” he said. “But then, when I saw where the ball landed, I think I had a chance to catch it. For me, I don’t want to rush. I want to keep the ball in front of me ... and keep the tying run (out) of scoring position.”

Scherzer, though, was now on the ropes, his pitch count climbing, the tying run on base in the bottom of the seventh, Fernando Rodney warming in the bullpen.

So how did the three-time Cy Young Award winner respond? He struck out Ozuna, then got Yadier Molina to ground into an inning-ending double play. He stalked off the mound, having once again emptied the tank, given the Nationals everything he had and given over the final two innings of a postseason game to the back of his bullpen.

And when it was over, this team that started the season 19-31, rallied to reach the wild card game, beat the Brewers with a late rally and came back to win Games 4 and 5 against the Dodgers, now left St. Louis realizing it is two wins away from a date in the World Series.

Not that anyone in the clubhouse is going to allow anyone else to start thinking about that.

“Hey, we’re going home, playing in front of our home fans,” Martinez said. “It’s kind of nice going back up 2-0 in the series. But those guys are really good over there. The series is far from over.”

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