They say the hallmark of a good team is how well they can play other good teams. The Washington Nationals (10-7) have had their struggles against baseball’s elite, but they looked like they belonged tonight.
After a lopsided shutout loss on Thursday, the Nats rebounded excellently tonight, as Gio Gonzalez locked down the St. Louis Cardinals (10-6) and outdueled Michael Wacha to get the Nats their first win over the Cards since Jayson Werth’s walkoff home run in Game 4 of the 2012 NLCS by a score of 3-1.
Gonzalez (W, 3-1) was stellar, rebounding nicely from a poor showing in his last start against the Braves in which he allowed six runs in six innings. Over seven one-run innings, he allowed one run on four hits and a walk while striking out seven.
But Wacha (L, 2-1) matched him pitch for pitch, also going seven innings with a remarkably similar line: one earned run, five hits, no walks, and seven strikeouts. But the difference between the two came in the bottom of the seventh, when Wacha loaded the bases with no outs in a 1-1 game.
He struck out Nate McLouth and got Jose Lobaton on a weak tapper to preserve the tie with two outs. But as Zach Walters pinch-hit, he uncorked a wild pitch and threw the ball away attempting to nail Ian Desmond at home, allowing Danny Espinosa to score and handing the Nats a 3-1 lead they would not relinquish.
Anthony Rendon hit a solo home run in the third to give the Nats an early 1-0 lead, marking just the seventh time in 17 games that the Nats have been the first team on the board. But St. Louis responded quickly and decisively, stringing three of their four hits off of Gonzalez together to drive in a run. But after Mark Ellis’ RBI single, Gonzalez buckled down, and would retire the final 11 Cardinals he faced.
But for all its pivotal moments, the most important event of tonight’s contest may have had implications far beyond one game. In the eighth, Tyler Clippard struggled, putting runners on second and third and getting just one out on 26 pitches. As if the hand of fate had picked up the bullpen phone, Drew Storen entered to replace him with the tying run in scoring position.
Storen proceeded to exorcise his demons. In total control, he popped up Matt Holliday on one pitch and got Allen Craig to ground out and escape the jam. It felt like a watershed moment for a pitcher who struggled last season and was said by some to be haunted by the ghost of Game 7. He now has a 1.29 ERA in 7 IP this season.
Rafael Soriano gave up a walk but got a double play ball to earn his fourth save. His WHIP may be 1.00, but his ERA is 0.00. Believe in him, people!
Nate McLouth started his fourth straight game in Denard Span’s absence, and is now 0-13 with two walks in those games and is 2-for-26 to begin his Nats career. He was a .258/.329/.399 hitter last season in Baltimore, so he’s clearly due for a rebound, but he’s in some kind of slump right now.
After his home run today, Rendon is hitting .313/.352/.582 with three home runs. His .934 OPS ranks 13th in the NL and 20th in all of baseball. It’s early, but he’s having the breakout many predicted and then some.