At the beginning of the season, it looked like this day might never come. Two weeks after the All-Star break, it looked it would come all too soon. But now the speculation is done, and the fateful day is here.
Rookie sensation Tanner Roark (L, 7-1) was not as sensational tonight, giving up four runs when he had only given up five all season, as Adam Wainwright did his job and the Nationals (84-73) fell to the Cardinals, 4-3, mathematically eliminating them from playoff contention.
After both won tonight, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds led the Nats by 5.5 games with five games to play. A Nats win would only have given them the faintest of hope, requiring that they won out and either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati lost out. Instead, the Nats are officially done with a little under a week to go.
The scoring got started early for the Nats. Denard Span singled to lead the game off, and one out later, Jayson Werth hit a two-run home run off of Wainwright to give the Nats an early 2-0 lead. Not to be left in the dust, St. Louis struck back for a run of its own in the bottom of the inning on a walk and a pair of singles.
After allowing the initial runs, both starters settled in well. Wainwright retired the next nine Nats to bat after the homer, and Roark retired eight of nine. But after their stronger stretches, the game went in opposite directions for the Cardinals and Nats.
In the bottom of the fourth, immediately after the aforementioned stretch, Roark gave up three straight singles to Cardinals batters, culminating in a Shane Robinson single that tied the game at two. Fortunately, despite facing runners on the corners with one out, Roark managed to escape without further damage done. That is, until the next inning.
The Cardinals jumped on Roark again in the fifth. After the leadoff man singled, Carlos Beltran homered to open up a two-run St. Louis lead. The hit was only the third extra base hit that Roark had allowed all season, a figure that might be somewhat unsustainable. Pulled for Fernando Abad in the sixth, Roark’s final line was lackluster: 5 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 5 K.
Meanwhile, after giving up a Wilson Ramos single to open the fifth, Wainwright proceeded to retire the next nine Nats once again. He tossed seven strong innings, allowing seven hits but just three runs while striking out five. That third run was the Nats’ last hurrah, and came after the first two Nats reached against Wainwright in the eighth. Two different Cardinal relievers combined to retire the next three Nats, but a sac bunt and a groundout by Ryan Zimmerman cut the deficit to 4-3.
Abad and Ryan Mattheus each threw a perfect seventh and eighth respectively, but it was not enough without offense. The Pirates and Reds won within minutes of each other in the bottom of the eighth, giving the Nats three outs to score a run to save their season. But it would not be, as two more St. Louis relievers combined for a perfect ninth. The Cardinals’ Pete Kozma, who broke Nats fans’ hearts in Game 5 of the NLDS last season, ended the Nats’ hopes once again by catching Adam LaRoche’s popup to end the game and the Nats’ chances.
Tomorrow, the Nats face reality and take the field for their first meaningless game since the end of the 2011 season. Playoff aspirations or not, the Nats will go out and play their hearts out regardless. Gio Gonzalez (11-7, 3.39) will make his second-to-last start of the year against the team that battered him in the playoffs last year. Opposite him will be Cardinals rookie and 2012 draftee Michael Wacha (3-1, 3.21), who was taken just three picks after the Nats chose Lucas Giolito.