The St. Louis Cardinals are what the Washington Nationals want to be. If we've learned anything from the first three games of this playoff series, we've learned that. Forget regular-season records. The Cardinals win when they need to win. They've been there, done that — and they continue to do it, currently at the expense of the Nats, who after Wednesday's 8-0 home defeat are just nine innings from Next Year.
Has Davey Johnson's ballclub — playoff virgins for the most part — been a little wide-eyed in this postseason? Well, the Nationals certainly have been out of sorts the past two games. They've lost by a combined score of 20-4, gotten two spirit-sapping starts from Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson and left runners in scoring position at an alarming rate. Of course, they're hardly the first young team that bore little resemblance to itself in its postseason debut, and they won't be the last.
That said, the Cardinals might be the most underrated defending World Series champ in recent memory. This is a club, I'll just remind you, that won the title last year without Adam Wainwright and made the playoffs this year without a single win from Chris Carpenter. Carpenter didn't get his first W of 2012 until Wednesday afternoon, when he pitched 5.2 shutout innings against the Nationals — after missing all but the last two weeks of the season following surgery to repair nerve damage in his right shoulder (a radical procedure that involved removing the top rib on that side).
I ask you: How many teams could not just survive but thrive in such situations? Answer: Only truly special ones. Anyway, that's who the Nationals have drawn in the first round of the playoffs, and hopefully they're taking notes. The Cards had to go to Atlanta and win the play-in game to get to the divisional round, so they went to Atlanta and won the play-in game (with the help of a liberal interpretation of the infield-fly rule). And now, after back-to-back batterings of the Nats, they're on the verge of another trip to the National League Championship Series and possibly their third ring in seven years.
"A team that has character and talent, it's a tough force to stop," manager Mike Matheny said. "Character is developed through adversity, and the adversity seemed to start off in spring training when we lose a Carpenter, and then a Lance Berkman goes down. There were plenty of excuses for these guys to make. They have intentionally decided not to go the route of the excuse, just come out and play the game."
Against this backdrop — Wainwright last season, Carpenter this — the angst about Stephen Strasburg's shutdown seems a little silly. As the Cardinals have shown, it's possible to get by without one of your aces if the rest of your roster plays up to its abilities. That's where the Nationals have fallen painfully short; aside from Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and a few others, the Nats aren't playing anywhere close to their abilities. At times, in fact, they've seemed like veritable imposters, like ghosts of Nats clubs past.
As Game 3 drew near, the buzz inside Nationals Park was almost loud enough to drown out the quartet of jets that flew overhead. A record crowd of 45,017 poured into the place — 1 o'clock start or no 1 o'clock start — and it couldn't have been much more supportive, cheering at the slightest provocation (e.g. a full count to a Washington batter). Jackson simply needed to keep that positive energy going, hold the Cards down for a few innings and see if his teammates could put some runs on the board.
Instead, he gave up an RBI double to Allen Craig in the first and a three-run homer to Pete Kozma in the second. That was more than enough for Carpenter, who's now 10-2 in his postseason career and looking a lot like Curt Schilling in 2004 (minus the bloody sock). Or maybe Curt Schilling in 2007.
"Just another challenge, I guess," Carpenter said. "I challenge myself in many ways, and this was another challenge mentally to go out and make pitches and do the things that you're supposed to do to be successful. No matter if I've got one [regular-season] start [to get ready for the playoffs], no starts or 35 starts, bottom line is, you go out there on the mound and make pitches and eliminate all of the distractions, and I was able to do that for the most part today."
Kozma, by the way, is another example of what I'm talking about. He's in the lineup only because the Cardinals' regular shortstop, All-Star Rafael Furcal, hurt his throwing arm against the Nationals in late August. So the 24-year-old Kozma, who at that point had 17 major league at-bats, was called up from Triple-A, and he proceeded to make all the plays down the stretch — while also hitting .333 (career minor league average: .236).
"We put him in there, gave him the opportunity, and he absolutely ran away with it," Matheny said.
The Cards, meanwhile, appear to be running away with this series. And now they have their best pitcher this season, Kyle Lohse, set to go in the potential clincher against the Nationals' No. 5 guy, Ross Detwiler. Killer.
"This time of year," said Adam LaRoche, the Nats' resident sage, "it's not always the best team that moves on. Sometimes it's the hottest."
Sometimes it's the one that can lose a rib along the way but not lose its balance in the process. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the St. Louis Cardinals.
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