Cards prove they're still quite the resilient bunch
WASHINGTON -- On Monday night, the St. Louis Cardinals returned to the site of a terrific triumph. They were still more than good enough.
The Cardinals were visiting Nationals Park in our nation's capital. When they last played the Washington Nationals on this ground it was October 2012, the fifth and final game of a National League Division Series.
The Cardinals made that event a lasting postseason memory, coming back from a six-run deficit, and coming back from a two-run deficit with two outs in the ninth to win, 9-7.
A victory of that kind in a game of that magnitude can help a team forge a very positive identity for itself. That victory, achieved in that way, represented to the Cardinals precisely what their best identity could be.
"You don't forget anything like that series, especially that last game," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Monday. "You try and learn from the past. I don't know that it's something that any of us will ever see again. It's very rare to see a group of guys come back from a deficit like that in a high-tension situation like that in the postseason.
"It's something we've talked about, through the winter. I think it helped define what we think of this team and the resiliency."
But that was then and this is 2013. The Nationals are now a popular pick to win not just the NL East, but the NL pennant, and subsequently, of course, the World Series.
Here, the Nationals were being reminded constantly, whether they liked it or not, about what happened the last time the Cardinals came to play.
"Are we going to make it a bigger deal than what it is? No," said Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa of the St. Louis series. "Would it be nice to beat them? Yes."
Both teams entered this series 10-8. That's a 90-victory pace, but it was being considered, particularly in the District of Columbia, as a disappointment. Things didn't immediately become any less disappointing for the Nationals on Monday night when the Cardinals won, 3-2.
This game had some late drama, too, but the Cardinals didn't have to stage any epic comebacks, because their starting pitcher on this night, Shelby Miller, was so good. Miller may be just 22 years old, but he's 3-1 with a 2.16 ERA in four starts this season.
Here, in 6 2/3 innings, staying primarily with his mid-90s fastball, Miller struck out eight, while giving up just two runs on four hits and two walks. Had an infield hit leading off the fourth been properly scored as an error, Miller would have had no earned runs on his line.
"A lot like what we've seen so far -- a fastball that he had a good feel for at the top of the zone," Matheny said of Miller's performance. "He made some room for his other pitches after that, but he did a nice job of sticking with what he does best."
The problem in the first three weeks of this season for the Cardinals was that, with closer Jason Motte out with an elbow injury, the back end of the bullpen has been, to put it gently, unsettled. The Cardinals are working to get their Plan B closer, Mitchell Boggs, back in form. In the meantime, Matheny is in ad lib mode with his late relievers.
This is a situation that generally makes managing a second-guess waiting to happen. But Monday night, there was no crisis. With two outs and two on in a one-run game in the seventh, Joe Kelly took over for Miller. Pinch-hitter Chad Tracy hit a soft fly to short center, and Jon Jay made what could fairly be called a game-saving catch, sliding to take away what momentarily appeared to be a certain hit.
"I just said, 'Somehow this ball has to be caught,'" Jay said.
He noted that this play occurred after he grounded into a double play with the bases loaded in the sixth.
"As soon as the ball went up, I was like, 'Man, you've got to catch it,'" Jay said. "I'm just happy I was able to make a play."
Edward Mujica pitched a spotless ninth for the save, but it could be fair to say that Trevor Rosenthal had the harder job in the eighth, pitching to the top of the Washington order. Rosenthal gave up a hit and a walk, but struck out Ian Desmond on a 98-mph fastball to end the threat.
Somebody described the victory to Matheny as "uncomplicated."
"It didn't feel like that," the manager replied.
The Cardinals didn't need a comeback for the ages here, but they still demonstrated some of their best qualities. Coming off a disappointing late loss in Philadelphia on Sunday night, getting into Washington in the wee hours Monday morning, the Cards still showed up ready with their best shot against an exceedingly difficult opponent.
"You've seen this team be pretty resilient and bounce back quick," Matheny said. "I think the same thing goes with the successes. We don't get too high on them. Realize that today was a good day and try to duplicate it tomorrow."