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Harper vs. Cecil turning point in Cards-Nats tilt

Smart positioning helped Cardinals stave off run-scoring double
MLB.com @JamalCollier

WASHINGTON -- A key at-bat helped ultimately decide the Cardinals' 6-1 victory over the Nationals on Wednesday, when St. Louis brought in struggling left-hander Brett Cecil to face Bryce Harper in the eighth inning.

The Cardinals pitching staff had stifled the Nationals offense for much of the game Wednesday, but Harper came up to the plate representing the potential go-ahead run with the tying run on base with two outs and runners at the corners. Cecil had allowed all four of the runners he inherited this season to score while Harper has gotten off to a fast start this season with a 1.082 OPS.

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WASHINGTON -- A key at-bat helped ultimately decide the Cardinals' 6-1 victory over the Nationals on Wednesday, when St. Louis brought in struggling left-hander Brett Cecil to face Bryce Harper in the eighth inning.

The Cardinals pitching staff had stifled the Nationals offense for much of the game Wednesday, but Harper came up to the plate representing the potential go-ahead run with the tying run on base with two outs and runners at the corners. Cecil had allowed all four of the runners he inherited this season to score while Harper has gotten off to a fast start this season with a 1.082 OPS.

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The night before, Harper drove a ball down the third-base line into left field for a double in the eighth inning. So the Cardinals positioned third baseman Jedd Gyorko toward the line in anticipation that Harper would try to drive the ball that way again. On a full count in the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Harper hit a line drive on a changeup from Cecil that came off his bat at 94.8 mph with a hit probability of 59 percent, but thanks to some key positioning, it went right at Gyorko, who caught it to end the threat.

"We played him there pretty much the whole game," Gyorko said. "We could tell he was trying to stay behind the ball a little bit more than usual. But with a guy like him, Cecil making pitches hopefully trying to stay away from him, we just kind of played him where we had the whole time. It just happened to be in the right spot."

"That was an awesome at-bat," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "We might've been off to the races on that one because that ball's down in the corner and with Anthony [Rendon] on first there, [and there] was a heck of a chance it would've been a tie ballgame."

The Cardinals added three runs in the ninth on a homer by Stephen Piscotty, but escaping the jam in the inning before set the stage.

Video: STL@WSH: Piscotty drives in three with homer to left

Trevor Rosenthal surrendered a pair of one-out singles to start the eighth, forcing Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to call upon right-hander Matt Bowman to face Rendon. Bowman -- who extended his scoreless innings streak to 14 dating back to September 2016 -- did his job and induced a double-play ball from Rendon, but the throw to first base was late, extending the inning.

Matheny acknowledged there was an argument to keep Bowman in the game, but with a pair of lefties due up in Harper and Daniel Murphy, Matheny decided to go with Cecil, who is in the first year of a four-year, $30.5 million contract.

"That's why we brought him here," Matheny said. "And he's going to get those outs for us. It's not always the easiest thing getting on that good roll with your new team. Today was a great step in the right direction."

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.

Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals, Brett Cecil, Bryce Harper