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Instant Analysis: Nats 3, Cardinals 2

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Instant Analysis: Nats 3, Cardinals 2

Updated at 9:00 p.m.

ST. LOUIS -- Their starting pitcher couldn't find the strike zone to save his life. Their only player with considerable postseason experience couldn't deliver a hit with men in scoring position. Their Gold Glove corner infielders couldn't make routine plays in the field.

In so many ways, the Nationals couldn't have drawn up a worse set of storylines for their first-ever postseason game. And yet, when they looked up at the scoreboard at Busch Stadium at the end of 3 hours and 40 minutes of the most tension-filled ballgame a team from Washington had experienced in 79 years, wouldn't you know they found themselves victorious.

Rookie Tyler Moore delivered the biggest base hit in Nationals history, a two-out, two-strike, two-run single to right in the top of the eighth, turning what was shaping up to be a ragged Game 1 of the National League Division Series into a rousing 3-2 win.

"I don't really know how we won that game, to be honest," reliever Craig Stammen said. "But we pulled it out somehow, and that's kind of how the playoffs goes. You just kind of pull games out."

Unable all afternoon to produce in clutch situations, the Nationals found salvation in the 25-year-old Moore, who poked a 1-2 pitch from lefty Marc Rzepczynski into right field. Michael Morse and Ian Desmond raced home to give the visitors their first lead since the top of the second and leave a sellout crowd of 47,078 in stunned silence.

"It was overwhelming," Moore said. "I got chills out there. It was great, because 50,000 fans and you couldn't hear anything. It was great."

Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen then combined to finish this one off and preserve the first postseason victory by a Washington major-league team since Game 3 of the 1933 World Series at Griffith Stadium.

Just like that, Gio Gonzalez's disastrous start, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa's struggles at the plate, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche's fielding woes became afterthoughts. The Nationals, despite all that went wrong on a chilly October afternoon in St. Louis, took a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series.

"The first game in a five-game series is crucial," Zimmerman said. "It's such a short series. For us to be able to kind of put their backs up against the wall, now they have to win tomorrow. ... For us to get this first game is huge. If we can go out and get the second game tomorrow, obviously it's a huge advantage for us."

Three full hours before gametime, Davey Johnson was talking about his philosophy with starting pitchers and how that wouldn't change just because the calendar shifted to October.

"Gio has struggled at times during the season," the manager explained. "A couple times out, I think he's about 50 pitches after two innings. And Gio will usually come by me and say: "Relax, Skip, I got it. I got it."

Johnson surely had to be worried about his postseason ace after two ridiculously wild innings to open Game 1. Gonzalez walked five of the first nine batters he faced, including the Cardinals' seventh, eighth and ninth hitters in succession, uncorked a run-scoring wild pitch and threw only 27 of his first 55 pitches for strikes.

Somehow through all of that, the left-hander kept St. Louis to only two runs. So Johnson stuck with his starter, never making anyone in the bullpen move a muscle until the bottom of the fifth.

"I resisted the temptation," Johnson said. "I was about one hitter away from getting Stammen ready, and he got out of it and pitched pretty good until he got a little wild there at the end. But he kept us in there, and that's what your ace does."

Gonzalez did manage to right the ship enough to muddle his way through five hair-raising innings, never allowing more than those two early runs. He wound up posting one of the craziest-looking pitching lines in postseason history, giving up only one hit while walking seven, striking out five and throwing a whopping 110 pitches.

"It definitely drains your battery," Gonzalez said. "The fans are in there, you're at someone else's house trying to go out there and get a win. It's pretty hard. It was kind of interesting, I kept everybody on the edge of their seat. I kept talking to myself, which I normally do, and just said I'm going to give these guys a chance. I don't want to blow it out of the water."

In doing so, Gonzalez somehow kept his team in the game, the Nationals trailing 2-1 nearly the entire afternoon. They scored their first run thanks to another clutch hit from Kurt Suzuki (who became a real force at the plate in September) but squandered plenty of opportunities to add more.

Despite striking out 10 times in 5 23 innings against Adam Wainwright, the Nationals did put 10 men on base against the Cardinals' Game 1 starter. But aside from Suzuki's early base hit, they couldn't produce in big spots.

Collectively, the Nationals were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position through the game's first 7 23 innings, with Werth the biggest culprit. Twice the man with the most postseason experience on Washington's roster came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. And twice he failed to bring a run home, grounding out to end the second and striking out to end the sixth.

"We had a lot of chances," he said. "Man, we had some chances. I had some chances. I felt like we were going to score at some point."

Their lineup unable to push across the tying run, the Nationals' bullpen and defense did their part to keep this a 2-1 game. Werth atoned for his struggles at the plate by battling the sun to rob Daniel Descalso of what would have been a two-run homer in the sixth.

Ryan Mattheus then authored one of the greatest relief pitching performances in postseason history. Given the ball with the bases loaded and nobody out in the seventh, the right-hander remarkably recorded three outs on only two pitches, getting a forceout at the plate and then getting a 6-4-3 double play to keep the Nationals' late-inning hopes alive.

"My mindset was: Come in, get a groundball and hopefully minimize the damage," Mattheus said. "If I get three outs and give up one run there, then that's a good job, too. Luckily I was lucky enough to make two good pitches, they were hit right at guys, and we got three outs."

And then got the biggest postseason hit by a player wearing a Washington uniform in a really long time.

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Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

Welcome to Inside Baseball. Here, we're taking a quick peek at what's going on ... inside ... baseball. 

We're almost a month into the MLB season, and that sweet noise you hear is the sound of sample sizes starting to become reliable! So far, the Red Sox are very good except for the nights they're getting no-hit, Derek Jeter's Marlins and their .227 winning percentage "aren't accepting a losing culture," and Mike Trout is well on his way to another historically-great 3rd place finish in the MVP race. 

AT NATS PARK

As it stands today, the Nationals are sitting in 4th in the NL East. It's early, they haven't been healthy, etc. etc., whatever. It hasn't been great. Their pitching staff features the best rotation in baseball paired alongside one of the worst bullpens in baseball. No bullpen in baseball has a higher homerun/flyball percentage (18%) than the Nationals. Only two teams - the Rockies and the Royals - strand runners on base at a lower clip than the Nationals (64.0 LOB%). If you really want to get into the weeds, their Win Probabilty and Clutch numbers tell a grim story too. 

Don't smash that panic button yet, though (maybe just lightly rest your hand on it?). There are a few reasons to believe that maybe the bullpen isn't actually as bad as they've been the first month.  They're striking out hitters at an elite level so far - only the Brewers and the Yankees have better K/9 and K% numbers than the Nats.  If you take take a look back at which bullpens led the league in strikeout numbers over the last handful of years, you'll see a *lot* of playoff teams. In the three-true-outcome era, having a bullpen that gets swings-and-misses is inarguably valuable. The Nats have that. 

Taking a look at their individual numbers, it's clear there's an excellent backend hidden somewhere in the bullpen right now. Sammy Solis' ERA is almost four runs higher than his FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a clear sign that Solis has pitched well but been a victim of the Nats' shoddy defense. The same goes for Ryan Madson, whose ERA sits at almost seven despite an FIP under three. Assuming that bullpen roles become more established once the data catches up, the Nats' bullpen could look a lot better in a month or two. 

AROUND BASEBALL

What you should know: Manny Machado's half-season showcase is going swimmingly. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers through the first month or so of games. He's posted a 208 wRC+, which is a fancy way of saying he's been 108 percent better than league average at the plate so far. He's been the most valuable hitter this season and the second-most valuable player overall. Meanwhile, the Orioles are 6-17 and already 12 games out of first place in the AL East. It hasn't even been a month yet. Is this the year the the MLB trade deadline is exciting?!

What you should watch: Angels @ Astros (4/24-4/25)

Shohei Ohtani is pitching on Tuesday night, so that's reason enough. But, if you need more, there's also Mike Trout, the defending World Series champs, and Justin Verlander pitching on Wednesday. It also happens to be a battle between the best two teams in the AL West, separated by half a game for first place. If there's such a thing as exciting April baseball, it looks like this. 

Player of the week: I know we already talked about him, but no one's been better than Manny Machado over the last seven days. He's hitting .500/.586/1.208 with five homers during that span. After being bit by historically bad luck during the first half of last season, Machado has been putting up monster numbers ever since:

Random baseball gif: 

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Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

SAN FRANCISCO  -- Mac Williamson hit a two-run homer in the sixth to lead the Giants past the Washington Nationals 4-2 on Monday night.

Chris Stratton (2-1) struck out five over 6 2/3 innings, allowing two runs and four hits.

Williamson, playing his first home game at AT&T Park this season after being called up during the recent road trip, connected with a deep drive to right-center off Shawn Kelley after he relieved starter Gio Gonzalez (2-2). Gonzalez walked Brandon Belt to end his day before Williamson crushed the first pitch he saw from Kelley.

The 464-foot shot by Williamson is the furthest homer by the Giants this year, topping his previous 434-foot homer Friday after he was promoted to face the Angels in Anaheim. Earlier Monday, Williamson drove in his team's initial run on a fielder's choice in the fourth.

Only three home runs have travelled further in 2018, according to MLB StatCast: Franchy Cordero (489), Avisail Garcia (481) and Marcell Ozuna (479)

San Francisco kicked off a 10-game homestand by winning back-to-back games for only the second time this season and first since April 4-7. The Giants were coming off their first series victory of the season against the Angels.

The Nationals' runs came on a pair of sacrifice flies, by Howie Kendrick in the third and pinch-hitter Andrew Stevenson in the seventh.

Gonzalez allowed three runs and four hits, struck out four and walked three in five innings.

In his only other start against Washington, Stratton threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts last Aug. 13.

Hunter Strickland, who brawled with Bryce Harper during Washington's last visit to AT&T Park in late May 2017, finished for his fourth save in six chances. Harper didn't bat in the ninth.

NATS TRADE COLE

Washington traded right-hander A.J. Cole to the New York Yankees for cash. The 26-year-old Cole was 1-1 with a 13.06 ERA in four games for the Nationals and was designated for assignment last week.

BAKER REUNION

Ex-Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who guided Washington to back-to-back NL East titles before his firing after last season, visited the ballpark to see his former club.

Did he plan the visit in advance?

"Maybe," Baker said, grinning.

Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg hustled out to give Baker a big hug behind the batting cage.

"What's up Dusty, how you doing?" Strasburg said.

Baker also visited with third base coach Bob Henley, the loan holdover from his coaching staff.

Baker is now working in an advisory role to Giants CEO Larry Baer while getting to watch son, Darren, play his freshman college season at California in Berkeley.

"I am good," Baker said. "How bad can it be between Cal, San Francisco and Sacramento?"

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: OF Adam Eaton, on the disabled list retroactive to April 9 with a bone bruise in his left ankle, won't be rushed back until he is completely pain-free. "When you see him in the lineup he'll be ready," manager Dave Martinez said. "He's coming along. When we get him back this time we don't want any issues." ... OF Brian Goodwin remains in Florida with pain in his bruised left wrist.

Giants: LHP Will Smith is eagerly anticipating his return from Tommy John surgery that cost him all of last season, and he could come off the DL as soon as Tuesday. He pitched twice for Class-A San Jose and three times so far for Triple-A Sacramento. He is scheduled to throw consecutive days for Sacramento on Wednesday and Thursday then another short outing Sunday. "We're close. We're getting there," Smith said, noting it will be "awesome. I'm ready to go." ... RHP closer Mark Melancon (flexor strain in pitching elbow) is scheduled to play catch during Thursday's off day. There is no timetable for his return, manager Bruce Bochy said. ... LF Hunter Pence (sprained right thumb) did some hitting and is scheduled for early batting practice Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Giants lefty Ty Blach (1-3, 4.10 ERA) will face the Nationals for the first time in his career when he pitches the middle game of the series opposite right-hander Tanner Roark (1-1, 3.24).