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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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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuña.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuña, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of... 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuña is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuña has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuña has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuña is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuña’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history is Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuña’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuña is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, though, voters love a narrative. If Acuña comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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