The Washington Times - September 24, 2013, 10:10PM

ST. LOUIS — As each loss the Washington Nationals suffered these last few weeks brought them closer to elimination, they steeled themselves for the possibility that one night the final blow would come. They held out hope that they’d be able to sneak into the playoffs, but prepared themselves for the disappointment that would inevitably come if they did not. 

It arrived on Monday night, handed to them by an increasingly annoying foe, and the reality stuck with them a bit.

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Tuesday, the St. Louis Cardinals returned, ready to dole out more. 

On a mild September evening in Missouri, as lightning flashed in the distance and a crowd of 38,940 pulsed with every movement inside Busch Stadium, 22-year-old Michael Wacha came within one out — within one Ryan Zimmerman infield single — of no-hitting the Nationals. 

“That Aggie pitched a heck of a ballgame,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, a fellow Texas A&M disciple, after his team’s 2-0 loss.

The outs came quickly for Wacha, who worked so fast that it took Denard Span until there was one out in the ninth inning to realize just how much the right-hander was forcing the Nationals batters out of their own rhythm. He’d thrown just 3.75 pitches per batter through four innings, and was at 70 pitches after six.

On an 0-2 pitch in the ninth, Span stepped out and called time, and then worked the count to 3-2 before Wacha delivered a filthy changeup to freeze him. 

The fans who packed the ballpark on this night in hopes of seeing the Cardinals continue their charge for the National League Central crown roared for their rookie as Zimmerman came to the plate. The collective breath of a fanbase held pensively as Wacha came set.

One out away.

All the Nationals’ third baseman thought was that he didn’t want to see Wacha’s changeup, which he’d thrown to him four straight times in the seventh. The pitch had given the Nationals fits all night, though in the aftermath, they raved about it, though it comes second to the fastball Wacha pumps in between 94 and 97 mph. Bryce Harper made outs three times on the pitch, twice flying to center and looking baffled after swinging through one in the seventh. He was hardly alone.

“(Yadier Molina) is one of the best, if not the best, back there calling games,” Zimmerman said, recounting his walk in the seventh. “But to throw four or five changeups in a row when you throw 94-97? that’s not something I expected… I was just kind of hoping he was going to throw a fastball.” 

Zimmerman swung at the first pitch, a rarity for him, and slammed the 97-mph fastball into the dirt in front of the plate. Wacha’s eyes followed it as it soared into the air. He stretched his lanky 6-foot-6 frame and desperately reached for the ball. It kicked off the edge of his glove. Shortstop Pete Kozma barehanded it, but his throw pulled Matt Adams off the first base bag. Zimmerman, hustling all the way, was safe. 

The crowd groaned, and then cheered. Wacha bit the edge of his glove and let out quick breath of air. Mike Matheny was already making his way up the dugout steps to pull him. 

“I guess,” Wacha said, “I wasn’t meant to throw one tonight.”

Relief reverberated through the Nationals’ dugout.

“Nobody wants to be no-hit, so at that point, a bleeder, any type of hit there,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “That’s, I think, the epitome of a seeing-eye single there. We’re trying to win that ballgame and then you get in the ninth inning and then it’s just, ‘Let’s get a hit and not be on the highlights for the next 10 years.’ Zim bailed us out.”

It was of little consolation.

Wacha’s domination, which featured nine strikeouts and two walks, served as another reminder of the gap between the Nationals and the Cardinals, who have haunted Washington since last October. The last time the Nationals beat the Cardinals Jayson Werth went leaping into home plate after his Game 4 walk-off. 

“You never want to (be no-hit),” Johnson said. “You’re doing everything you can to wish him back luck, talking about it, what you don’t do on the other side.” 

The Nationals struck a handful of line drives throughout the night, including a sinking liner into the left field corner by Anthony Rendon in the eighth, but they all found their way into the glove of a Cardinals player. The one that did get through, a hard ground ball hit by LaRoche in the fifth, slipped through Matt Carpenter’s legs at second base and went for an error — the end of Wacha’s perfect game bid. 

Of course, then, it was an infield hit ended Wacha’s bid. 

“Baseball is weird,” Zimmerman said. “We hit balls on the screws all night, and that’s the swing, that’s the hit that breaks it up.”

“Man, that was some kind of fun to watch,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

The Nationals, insistent that they felt no letdown due to the deflating events from Monday night, tried to break things up earlier. Fans booed when Span, at the plate with two outs in the sixth, dropped down a bunt and began to book it down the line. The ball rolled foul on the third base side, though, and Span promptly ground out to second on the next pitch. 

“The game is two-zip, it’s the sixth inning,” said Span, who utilizes the bunt-for-a-hit as a part of his game on occasion. “I’m trying to get on-base… One swing and it’s a tie game.

“In my mind, technically I don’t think I would’ve been wrong even in the ninth inning in a 2-0 game. You tip your hat for him to pitch as good as he pitched, but we’re trying to win a ballgame. Two-zip, you get somebody on, whether it’s a walk or a bunt or anything and somebody comes up and hits a home run, we’re playing extra innings. If the game is four-zip, five-zip and he has a no-hitter, yeah I respect that, but I think you’ve got to try to win the game first.”

Gio Gonzalez did not pitch poorly in his penultimate start of the season, going seven innings and allowing just two runs, but he was a mere footnote on this night. He himself lost a no-hitter in the seventh inning just a few weeks ago, and he understood the gravity of what was going on around him.

“The whole time, I was just trying to get the guys back inside,” he said. “I didn’t want them to get cold feet sitting out there the whole time. I just wanted them to come back in there and try to swing the bat.”

They tried. Only Zimmerman was able to do it with any success, and even then it took a ricochet off the desperate stretch of a pitcher’s glove and an off-line throw too late for a tag. 

Trevor Rosenthal entered. Now, with the Nationals only down two runs, the game was also on the line.

Jayson Werth ground a 3-2 pitch sharply to first base. The Nationals were left only with the consolation prize.

“It’s not like (getting no-hit) is something that’s never happened before,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes, the other guy is just really good. He was really good tonight. You don’t wan to get no-hit, so it’s nice to break it up.

“But it was cool to have the crowd standing. The atmosphere, that was like a big-time playoff atmosphere, which is what we like to play in.”