If someone told you a rookie outfielder would deliver the key hit in for the Washington Nationals in the top of the eighth inning in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, it probably wouldn’t come as that big of a surprise, considering the Nats have one of the most celebrated first-year players to ever play in the majors. But the hero in the Nats 3-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals probably isn’t the guy you would have thought of first.
No, it wasn’t Bryce Harper that delivered the key hit. It was Tyler Moore, one of several rookies that made the Nats post-season roster, who singled to right off Cardinals reliever Marc Rzepczynski to drive in two in that pivotal at bat in the eighth inning to give the Nats a lead that eventually turned into a win to take a 1-0 series lead over the Cards.
This one wasn’t pretty. There were several defensive miscues. Both team stranded a ton of runners. Nats starter Gio Gonzalez walked seven batter. Yes, seven. But in the end, a Major League team from the District won their first playoff game since 1933.
The eighth inning rally started with Michael Morse’s hard hit grounder to short, which Pete Kozma misplayed into an error. Ian Desmond (3-for-4, run) singled, moving Morse over to third. Danny Espinosa, who had struck out three times to that point in the game, tried to bunt for a base hit and was out easily when his bunt dies about 10 feet in front of home plate, but Desmond did move up 90 feet. Kurt Suzuki struck out against righty Mitchell Boggs, bringing up the pitcher’s spot.
Nats manager Davey Johnson sent up lefty Chad Tracy to hit in the spot, so Cards manager Mike Matheny called upon his left-handed specialist, Rzepczynski. Johnson countered by pulling Tracy and instead inserting Moore into the key situation in the game. Moore got into a 2-2 count, then flared a 93-MPH fastball ont he outside corner into right field, scoring both Morse and Desmond, who’d gotten a terrific jump on the ball.
That left the Nats needing to record just six outs to notch the win. Tyler Clippard, who struggled down the stretch and eventually lost the closer’s role, did his job, allowing just one base runner, who reached on a Ryan Zimmerman throwing error. Drew Storen pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning to record the first playoff save of his career and allowed the Nats to earn no worse than a split in St. Louis.
But this was a nailbiter all the way. With the Cardinals nursing a 2-1 lead much of the game, every inning saw a key play or decision that might have swayed the outcome. In the sixth with a runner on, Cards second baseman Daniel Descalso lofted a fly ball to the right field wall, but Jayson Werth leapt at the last and caught the potential homer with the heel of his glove, keeping the score at 2-1.
In the following frame, the Cardinals loaded the bases with no outs against Craig Stammen, pitching his second inning of work. Johnson asked for his other right-handed middle man, Ryan Mattheus, and the unheralded reliever threw two pitches — and recorded three outs. Mattheus coaxed a grounder to short from cleanup hitter Allen Craig, and Desmond calmly threw home to force the runner at the plate. His next pitch was grounded to Zimmerman at third by Yadier Molina and Zim started a 5-4-3 double play to end the threat.
Gio Gonzalez did not have the playoff debut he would have hoped for. The 21-game winning lefty fought his control all game, walking seven in five innings. Of his 110 pitches, only 59 were strikes. But with as many runners as he gave the Cardinals, they never could come up with the big hit to bust things open, only reaching Gonzalez for one hit in his erratic performance.
THE TAKEAWAY: It was absolutely imperative the Nats earn a split on the road in St. Louis and they were able to do just that right away in Game 1. In the ludicrous situation the Nats find themselves — having won the N.L. East, earning the league’s best record along the way, and being forced to play the first two games of the series on the road — they needed to split to make what little homefield advantage they’ve been given in this series worth something. The Cards, down 0-1 now, are really behind the eight ball having to with three of the next four games, with the last three coming in D.C.
And kudos to Davey Johnson, sticking to his guns by using Moore in a big pinch-hitting spot interchangeably with Chad Tracy. In fact, he could have been massaging the situation by going to Tracy in the first place, knowing Matheny would counter with a lesser pitcher for the presumably more favorable handedness matchup. It didn’t work though, as Davey used his whole roster, just as he did all season and just as he said he would continue to do in the playoffs.
THE GOOD: Desmond, Moore, Mattheus, Clippard and Storen all played the hero today. Add in Suzuki for delivering the Nats first run on a tow-out hit in the second inning.
THE BAD: Jayson Werth. The home run saving catch was great, but Werth had a rough day at the plate, going 1-for-5 and leaving the bases loaded twice. He stranded seven runners in total.
THE UGLY: Danny Espinosa. He’s been in the doghouse quite a bit lately, and his performance in Game 1 won’t do anything to get him out of there. Officially, he went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a sacrifice bunt, stranding four runners. Twice he came up with a runner on third and one out and couldn’t make contact to bring in that run. In his last at bat, with runners on the corners, he swung through strike one and then bunted on strike two, getting thrown out in the process. Replays showed Michael Morse wasn’t coming on a squeeze play, so either someone missed a sign or Espinosa was trying to bunt for a base hit. Not a good play, either way.
THE STATS: 8 hits, 4 BBs, 13 Ks. 2-for-9 with RISP, 10 LOB, no GIDPs. E: LaRoche (1), Zimmerman (1), 2 DPs.
NEXT GAME: Monday at 4:30 pm in St. Louis. Jordan Zimmermann (12-8, 2.94) faces lefty Jaime Garcia (7-7, 3.92).
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Nationals coverage on Twitter @NationalsDSP.