Here’s the math pertinent to the current stranglehold: Road teams which win the first two games of a best-of-seven series have won 88 percent of those series in MLB postseason history. This is where the Nationals stand after two days in St. Louis.
Washington holds a 2-0 lead in the National League Championship Series by riding an uncomplicated formula. Its starting pitching has been almost untouchable. The offense has been just enough. The Nationals come home with Stephen Strasburg well-rested to start Game 3 on Monday. They are two wins from the World Series.
Saturday, Max Scherzer took control for seven innings. Sean Doolittle, Patrick Corbin — yes, Corbin — and Daniel Hudson wrapped things up. Adam Eaton’s two-run double in the eighth provided the cushion in a 3-1 win. What’s going right lately? Everything.
“It's kind of nice going back up 2-0 in the series, but those guys are really good over there,” Davey Martinez told reporters. “The series is far from over. We got a day off [Sunday], we're going to spend the night, get a good rest and work out [Sunday] for a little while, and then get back at it the next day.”
The familiar alarms from Friday began to wail again Saturday after the fifth inning. Scherzer had not allowed a hit while the Cardinals’ frustration built. Yadier Molina slammed his bat after popping out. Matt Carpenter watched a 97-mph inside fastball sizzle past for strike three when Scherzer dragged himself out of a 3-0 count. Left-handed swinging Tommy Edman watched a 97-mph fastball hit the outer edge for a called strike three of his own. That was just in the fifth.
An astonishing stat followed: In Games 1 and 2 of the 2013 American League Championship Series, Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez held the Red Sox hitless through the first five innings in each start. They were the only pitchers in MLB postseason history to hold the same team hitless through five innings in consecutive games. Six years later, they had done it again.
And, like Sánchez, Scherzer was working with the most modest of leads. Michael A. Taylor’s solo home run provided the Nationals a 1-0 cushion against Adam Wainwright, who wasn’t far from matching Scherzer. Wainwright allowed just four hits in his first six innings: three singles and the home run. He walked no one and struck out nine. The curveball was his pitch of choice. Wainwright threw 34 among his first 77 pitches. Nineteen were strikes. Washington put just two in play.
Which made any St. Louis baserunner a danger. Dexter Fowler walked with two outs in the sixth to produce the Cardinals’ first baserunner since the first inning. But a check swing from Kolten Wong led to a tapper easily handled by Anthony Rendon. Scherzer walked off the mound 92 pitches into his outing. He had not allowed a hit. A challenging decision for Davey Martinez was coming around the bend.
“It's a 1-0 game, mistakes are, it's razor thin out there, you can't give -- I'm really thinking don't give up a solo shot,” Scherzer told reporters. “Just trying to work with Zuk and just navigate through this lineup. Just stay in the moment, stay with Zuk and just keep your mind what we need to do. And he did a great job of sequencing them and we did a good job of just executing pitches.”
Paul Goldschmidt made the decision-making easier. His leadoff single in the seventh snapped Scherzer’s push for history. Only two pitchers — Don Larsen and Roy Halladay — had thrown no-hitters in the postseason. Marcell Ozuna struck out. Molina grounded into a double play. Scherzer’s spot was due up second in the eighth. Matt Adams replaced him after 101 pitches, seven innings, one hit, no runs, two walks and 11 strikeouts. Scherzer has allowed one earned run in his last 15 postseason innings. His career postseason ERA is down to 3.35.
Keeping to Friday’s script, the Nationals added runs late to calm nerves and swell the lead. Eaton’s eighth-inning double down the first-base line scored two runs when Wainwright’s curveball finally lost a battle.
“Facing Wainwright and him and Yadi were kind of confusing me all day in that at-bat and keeping me really, really off balance,” Eaton told reporters. “And in that sense 3-2, kind of knew he was going to go to the breaking ball, more so than any other pitch -- or any other at-bat that I've had. And I knew he had to throw it for a strike so it kind of gave me an opportunity to sit on it and got it and hit it where they weren't.”
St. Louis manager Mike Shildt left Wainwright in the game to face Eaton 92 pitches into his efficient outing. Andrew Miller was ready. This decision will be the focal point in St. Louis. Miller came in after an intentional walk to Anthony Rendon. Juan Soto popped out, Howie Kendrick struck out. Inning over and question in: Why didn’t Miller enter to face Eaton then handle the two behind Rendon?
“You take your chances with a guy that's in the moment, in the competition, that's pitched as well as he has, that is still executing his pitches, and he more than deserved that opportunity,” Shildt said. “He snuck one down the line on him.”
Finally, a run emerged for for St. Louis in the eighth. Jose Martinez’s protracted at-bat against Sean Doolittle resulted in a crisp fly ball to the heart of center field. Taylor misread it. The ball clicked off his glove at the top of his leap then rolled to the wall. Paul DeJong, who had singled, scored the Cardinals’ first run of the series. Fowler’s pop out closed the inning. Hudson prepped to close the game. Then, Corbin began to throw in the Nationals’ bullpen.
Corbin entered to face the left-handed Wong. Two pitches later, Wong was out and so was Corbin. Dave Martinez hopped out of the dugout to bring Hudson — who became a dad for the third time after the Friday birth of another daughter — into the game. He retired Goldschmidt and Ozuna. Game over. Grip tightened.
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