As my mom always says, better late than never…

After stumbling to drop the last two games of our homestand, losing our third consecutive series against the Reds and our first overall series since July, the Cardinals needed to get off on the right foot in Washington, D.C. against the formerly formidable Nationals. The pitching matchup was young phenom Jack Flaherty vs. NL Cy Young frontrunner Max Scherzer. The playoff berth standings have tightened considerably over the last couple days, and we entered play yesterday in sole possession of the second Wild Card berth, half a game back from the Brewers for the first WC spot and a game ahead of the Rockies. On the NL Central, we were 5.5 behind the Cubs and .5 behind the Brewers, and about 10 games ahead of the fourth-place Pirates.

So, a win would’ve been really great. The lineups were thus:

Even after the Nats’ belated firesale, that’s a formidable top 6 in the lineup, and Max Scherzer is the kind of guy that can make a team stop caring about their bullpen woes once every five days. But don’t count the Cardinals out – even with injuries to Gyorko and Wong and Molina taking a breather, the return of Ozuna bodes well for our offense, and Jack Flaherty has been able to match up with anybody in the league for 5 or 6 innings this year.

The Game

The Good Part

The Cardinals jumped out to an early lead, getting to Scherzer in the top of the 1st. Matt Carpenter characteristically battled to a full count to open the game, then uncharacteristically struck out. Yairo picked him up with a single to right, then Matt Adams worked a walk. Ozuna struck out looking. Paul DeJong stepped in, glared at Scherzer, and Scherzer tripped over his feet, balking and putting the runners at 2nd and third. DeJong hit a long single to left, scoring Munoz and Adams. Cardinals lead, 2-0.

The Nats struck back in the bottom of the frame. Flaherty, who was sweating profusely, struck out Adam Eaton to open the home half. He then promptly served up a middle-middle fourseamer to Trea Turner, who obligingly served it into the left-center seats. (A note about the sweat: I live in the greater DC area, and it was unbearably hot yesterday. I couldn’t hardly walk from my truck to the store entrance without a change of clothes. It’s really impressive that these guys perform at any level, much less the level that they do, under these conditions, when they play 162+ games a year.) At any rate, Flaherty got further into trouble, walking Harper, Soto, and Ryan Zimmerman, all on full counts, while getting a popout from Anthony Rendon. But the scary part of the Nats lineup was spent, and Wilmer Difo struck out to end the threat. Seven batters and 33 pitches into the game, Jack Flaherty had logged an inning and given up three walks and a run. But the Cardinals still lead, 2-1.

Scherzer and Flaherty both settled in after that first inning, trading zeroes through the 5th inning. Scherzer feasted on Cardinals batters, logging 9 strikeouts through the 5th, while Flaherty was much more efficient. Jack only allowed two baserunners (Rendon HBP and Zimmerman single) through the 4th. The 5th got a little bit hairy, though; Flaherty logged 2 quick outs from Eaton and Turner, before walking Bryce Harper and giving up a double to Rendon. Shildt opted to put rookie sensation Juan Soto on intentionally, loading the bases for Ryan Zimmerman. Flaherty and Zimmerman fought to a full count before Zimmerman flied out to Ozuna in left. No damage, but Flaherty’s day was over: 5 IP, 3 H, 5 BB, 5 K, 1 HR. That walk total was troubling, but I didn’t see anything overly concerning in Flaherty’s velocity or command. He was just facing a really tough lineup, more than anything, and he might have been nibbling some after giving up that homer to Turner early. The 33-pitch first launched any chance he had at going deep into the game, which has traditionally been the only fault I can find with his performance this year. At any rate, the Cardinals still lead, 2-1.

Yairo Munoz, with his moon face and excellent handling of every chance he’s gotten to play since May or so, chalked another grit point up by blasting an 0-2 homer to straightaway center against Scherzer to lead off the 6th. The Cardinals went in order after that, and John Brebbia struck out the bottom third of the Nats order in the home half. Cardinals lead after 6, 3-1.

Max continued mowing down Cardinals in the 7th, inducing a flyout from Greg Garcia and striking out Bader and Pena on 7 pitches. Carlos Martinez and Pat Wisdom were double switched in for Brebbia and Matt Adams, and Martinez worked around a pair of walks to Turner and Harper to get through the bottom of the 7th without incident. The Cardinals held their 2-run lead despite having issued 7 walks to this point.

An aside on the double-switch: This one was a little bit of a head-scratcher, as it only pushed the pitcher’s spot from 9th (first up in the 8th) to 3rd (fourth up in the 8th). If I ran the zoo, I’d have double switched too, but I’d have done it with Molina or Carson Kelly (depending on Molina’s availability, and maybe pinch-hitting Wisdom for Kelly if you think he’s that much of a liability with the bat). Instead, Mike put the pitcher’s spot in a position to force a pinch-hitter if literally anything went well offensively in the next inning. It didn’t really matter from a bench perspective with expanded rosters, but with our recent troubles holding leads, I’d want to give Martinez a good shot at going multiple innings. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shildt. But I wouldn’t have done this.

Jimmy Cordero replaced Max Scherzer, and I bet the Nats wished they hadn’t done that. Cordero was wild, hitting Pat Wisdom with a pitch on a 1-0 count and prompting his coach to issue an intentional walk to Matt Carpenter after spotting him a 2-0 count. Yairo Munoz continued his day on fire with a single to CF, loading the bases with no outs. Justin Miller replaced Cordero, and with the pitcher’s spot up already, Jose Martinez (all he does is hit) stood in to cash in some runs.

Alas, for the second time in two days, Martinez didn’t come up with the big hit. Instead, he smashed the ball to 2B Wilmer Difo, who initiated a 4-2-3 double play, nailing Wisdom at the plate on the forceout and Martinez in his turn at first. Marcell Ozuna, the guy I was all excited about returning to the lineup, struck out on three pitches. And that’s how the Cardinals gave up Carlos Martinez’s second inning and bases loaded, no outs, all in one stroke.

Jordan Hicks toed the rubber in the 8th, and worked around a 1-out Wilmer Double by striking out Matt Wieters and Andrew Stevenson. Old not-friend Greg Holland took the top of the 9th for the Nats and retired the side in order, inducing flyouts from DeJong and Garcia and a backward K from Harrison Bader. Entering the bottom of the 9th, the Cardinals still lead, 3-1.

The Bad Part

Bud Norris toed the rubber, ready to bounce back from a rough showing Sunday by closing out this contest. He faced the top of the Nats order. After a leadoff walk to Adam Eaton, Bud induced a 6-4 fielder’s choice groundout off the bat of Trea Turner. Bryce Harper saw 3-0, then 3-1, then turned on a 2-seamer that couldn’t have been served up more beautifully if his own dear Pa had been pitching to him in the Home Run Derby. In one fell strike, the Nats capitalized on the Cardinals pitching corps’ 8th walk of the day, tied the game in the bottom of the 9th, and incited a renewed wail from Cardinals faithful to “SACK BUD NORRIS ALREADY!” Game tied, 3-3.

The Ugly Part

Norris struggled along, trying to finish the inning. Anthony Rendon hit a sharp liner to left that looked like it would drop in, but Marcell Ozuna made a sharp all-out sliding snow-cone play to save the hit, and it stood up on review for the second out. Norris walked Soto on four pitches, then gave up a single up the middle to Zimmerman after first getting him to 0-2, then 1-2. Norris’s game was over, and lefty Chasen Shreve came in to face Wilmer Difo, who is one of those switch-hitters who should probably just not bother from their weak side (the right side in Difo’s case).

Shreve, pitching to Difo, ran him to an 0-2 count and even got another foul out of him before making him the tenth Nats BB of the day on the next four pitches. Behold as Chasen loses all comprehension of where he’s throwing:

Shreve found the strike zone against Matt Wieters, and the Nats stranded the three guys standing on the bases. Bonus Baseball! (Ugh.)

The Cardinals started the 10th off in promising fashion, with Pena working a 5-pitch walk from Greg Holland. Jose Adolis Garcia took over as a pinch runner, and Pat Wisdom went to work. The Cardinals tried to make the most of Garcia’s fleet feet on what was probably a hit-and-run, but as Wilmer Difo broke toward second to cover what he thought was a steal attempt, Wisdom hit the ball right on the screws, right at Wilmer’s new position. Garcia was easily doubled off, and Matt Carpenter earned his silver sombrero, striking out for the third time on the day in what would be the Cardinals’ last PA of the day. And all this at the hands of Greg Holland.

I’ll collapse the game’s ending, because it sucked. Chasen Shreve came back out for the Cardinals and gave up a double to Mark Reynolds, a single to Adam Eaton, got a popout, and gave up a walkoff sac fly to Bryce Harper, who hit the ball to ol’ Noodle Arm Ozuna. Harper’s the big hero, woo woo woo (BOOOOOOOOOOOO). Cardinals lose, 4-3.

Postgame

Oh well, get ’em next time, boys. The Cardinals retained the 2nd WC slot after play ended on Monday, and the Cubs lost to the Brewers in their own dramatic late-game fashion. Pitching matchups for Tuesday is John Gant vs. Erick Fedde, fresh off a 2-month DL stint. The Cardinals haven’t seen the 25-year-old righthander Fedde yet, but he doesn’t look like anything too special based on his early returns or projections. (It won’t matter if we don’t hit.) (But we’ll hit, you’ll see!) (We’ll see.)

Cheers. Tune in tonight at 6:05 CDT to see whether we advance in our quest to return to the postseason!

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