Big momentum swing costly for Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals had the right guys up and were ready to

break open their playoff opener against the Washington

Nationals.

Three pitches later, the course of Game 1 had changed. And soon,

the defending World Series champion Cardinals had let their big

chance slip away in a 3-2 loss Sunday.

The Cardinals led 2-1 in the seventh inning and were poised to

get more with the bases loaded and nobody out. Cleanup hitter Allen

Craig, who led the National League with a .400 average with runners

in scoring position, was up and MVP candidate Yadier Molina was on

deck.

But reliever Ryan Mattheus needed just two pitches to get out of

the jam. Craig grounded into a forceout at the plate, then Molina

bounced into an easy double play.

And on the first pitch of the eighth, Cardinals rookie shortstop

Pete Kozma misplayed Michael Morse’s grounder. Ian Desmond followed

that error with a hit and, two outs later, pinch hitter Tyler Moore

slapped a two-strike single to right for a two-run single.

”It’s baseball,” Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday said.

”They got a guy who throws groundballs and he came in and got two

of them. You’ve got two of the best hitters in the league coming

up. It just didn’t work out.”

The Nationals, who had never come close to making the playoffs

since moving from Montreal for the 2005 season, overcame a wild

outing by 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez to start the NL division

series.

Mattheus got the win for his two-pitch, three-out seventh, and

Drew Storen pitched a perfect ninth for the save. Mitchell Boggs,

victimized by Kozma’s error in the eighth, took the loss.

The NL East champion Nationals led the majors with 98 wins this

season, and brought postseason baseball to Washington for the first

time since 1933. The Nats go for a 2-0 series lead Monday when

Jordan Zimmermann opposes Jaime Garcia.

”This team is not hanging our heads,” St. Louis starter Adam

Wainwright said. ”We can come back and win this easily.”

The Cardinals made it to the best-of-five division series by

beating Atlanta in the wild-card matchup Friday. But St. Louis

wasted a 10-strikeout gem by Wainwright, failing to capitalize

enough on Gonzalez’s career high-tying seven walks and frustrating

its towel-waving fans.

A standing room crowd of 47,078, among the largest at 7-year-old

Busch Stadium, bundled up for a game that began in 54-degree chill

and featured kaleidoscope late-afternoon shadows that bedeviled

hitters for several innings.

Wainwright became the first Cardinals pitcher to reach double

digits in strikeouts since Bob Gibson also fanned 10 to beat the

Tigers in Game 4 of the 1968 World Series.

Wainwright was a 14-game winner coming off reconstructive elbow

surgery that sidelined him all of 2011, with 10 of the wins coming

at home. He’s been a postseason ace with a microscopic 0.77 ERA and

32 strikeouts in 23 1-3 innings.

He fanned Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman twice each and

seventh-place hitter Espinosa all three times.

”His breaking ball really bailed him out today and kept them

off-balance and had a lot of swing-and-misses and some chases and

strikeouts with the breaking ball,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny

said.

Gonzalez allowed just one hit in five innings, on David Freese’s

full-count bouncer between third and short to start the fourth. But

he had trouble finding catcher Kurt Suzuki’s glove.

The second inning was Gonzalez’ shakiest when he allowed the

Cardinals to score twice and take the lead without a hit. Gonzalez

walked four of the first five hitters, putting St. Louis in

position to score one run on a wild pitch and a second on Jon Jay’s

bases-loaded sacrifice fly.

Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth robbed Daniel Descalso of a

two-run homer off with a leaping catch to keep it at 2-1 in the

sixth. Descalso had a fielding gem of his own in the seventh,

ranging far to his left to glove Harper’s grounder and then

throwing him out by a few steps.

Both pitchers were aided by the late-afternoon shadows. The

narrow roof above the top of the upper deck, and lattice work

beneath the roof, creates a hodge-podge of sun and shade. At one

point, pitchers were throwing from sunshine into shade, a small

stretch of sun then shade again.

It was little surprise there were just five singles and no runs

in innings three through six, when the shadows were most

prominent.

”He’s hard to hit when you can see well, and even harder when

you can’t,” Holliday said of Gonzalez. ”It’s hard to hit when you

can’t see the ball, see the spin on the ball.”

NOTES: The Cardinals went 0 for 8 with runners in scoring

position. … Garcia was 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA in nine starts at

home. The lefty has a 2.48 career ERA at Busch. … Kozma committed

one error in 26 games after taking over as the regular SS in

September for injured Rafael Furcal.