ST. LOUIS — With seven runs through four innings, the grizzled postseason veterans corrected their October cosmos, swung a paddle at the playoff newbies’ pink cheeks and affirmed that baseball’s reigning kings will hold their crown with a red-knuckled grip for at least two games longer.
A must-have in Game 2? Monday was must-watch for a Busch Stadium crowd accustomed to fall magic, a crisp swipe by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Washington Nationals’ jaw during a 12-4 thumping that served to tie this National League Division Series and haze the postseason rookie.
The punishment was swift — St. Louis scored in all but three innings, holding a 7-1 lead after four. The punishment was severe — Jordan Zimmermann’s white-flag start consisted of coughing up five runs and seven hits in three innings. The punishment was necessary for the defending World Series champions — flawed but forceful — to carry hope as this NLDS shifts to the District, where Natitude will meet Cardinal Attitude for the right to move on.
“We needed to win today,” said St. Louis right fielder Carlos Beltran, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of home runs for three RBI. “There wasn’t much room (for error) for us, and we did it. Did we swing the bat well? Yes. Did we pitch well? Did we make some good defensive plays? Yes. But not every day is going to be like today. So we have to understand that. We have to find a way to play the game to win.”
During the last two years, playing to win has become a fall mantra as common as a Budweiser koozie in this baseball Acropolis. The Cardinals stagger and stumble, slur their speech with both eyes blackened, pull up the covers in their deathbed but never gasp a final breath. They have won with rally squirrels and curious infield flies, (David) Freese warnings and Chris Carpenter works of art. They have become a champion for the 11th time in their proud franchise’s history, won five consecutive elimination games, and they have transformed into an annoyance for all who grimace at their grin along the way.
So it should be no surprise that the Cardinals found a way Monday, with relative ease, when their backs were pinned against a brick wall in an alley with little light. The Cardinals roughed up Zimmermann, who entered with a 0-2 record with a 9.12 ERA in five career starts against them. They smacked 13 hits, five of which came from Matt Holliday and Allen Craig and Yadier Molina — a celebrated group that whiffed 0-for-10 in Game 1. Their 12 runs matched a franchise high for production in a division series, first achieved against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2002. They made scant drama of a possibly dramatic situation, putting the young Nationals in place like a stern teacher would a rebellious student.
Was there urgency in the St. Louis clubhouse, before taking the field after giving away Game 1 by allowing two runs in the eighth inning Sunday? Were there nerves, knowing that a campaign to become the first repeat World Series winner since the New York Yankees completed a three-peat in 2000 likely hinged on the result?
“Zero,” said Cardinals reliever Lance Lynn, who threw three innings and gave up two runs and three hits. “It’s one game. You just come out and play. We tried to win yesterday, and we’re coming out trying to win today. It wasn’t the last game. Nothing was on the line. You’ve just got to come out and play your game and see what happens.”
But what about the moment’s weight? What about the day’s stakes?
“I kind of thought about that before the game, and we came in today just like yesterday — just ready to go,” said Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who went 1-for-3 with one hit and one RBI. “Play your heart out and see what happens. Obviously, winning is huge. Winning this game is big. You can’t deny that — evening up the score.”
By evening up the score, St. Louis has turned a possible Everest into Mount McKinley. Washington finished 50-31 at home in the regular season, tied with the Cincinnati Reds for best in the NL. It will be a daunting task to win two games at Nationals Park, certainly, but the challenge is more attainable than being forced to win three without defeat in a starved town that last witnessed postseason baseball in 1933.
Good news for the Cardinals: They have Carpenter and Kyle Lohse yet to pitch this series, one arm tested and the other resurgent. They have memory of postseason surprises and scars, something the green Nationals are only beginning to form. They have perspective of living this unforgivable grind — they dropped Game 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies in last season’s NLDS before winning Games 2, 4 and 5 — and they are confident in their ability to repeat the rally.
“Basically, it’s a clean slate,” said Cardinals second baseman Daniel Descalso, who went 2-for-4 with two RBI. “Now it’s a three-game series. It would have been tough to go down 0-2. We wanted to come out here and get a win today. We’ve been in that spot before. We would have liked to win yesterday, but that was in the past. We showed up today ready to go. We weren’t worried about yesterday at all.”
That’s the thing about grizzled postseason vets — each October is a new opportunity, a new day. For the Cardinals, Sunday brought a sigh, Monday a smackdown. They’ve seen this rhythm before.
It’s all part of survival in a month when the strongest live on.