The Washington Nationals completed their four-game NLCS sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday night, 7–4, and advanced to the franchise’s first World Series. They did it with a seven-run first inning, and then mostly held on for dear life, but they had a bunch of help from the Cardinals themselves, who crapped the bed throughout the series and then set the bed on fire in Game 4.
Washington’s big first was made possible by a pair of unbelievably ill-timed goofs by the Cardinals’ generally excellent defense. Starter Dakota Hudson was already in deep shit, having given up two runs before he’d even recorded two outs, when old man Ryan Zimmerman scalded a grounder up the third-base line with runners on first and second. Tommy Edman, starting and leading off after Dexter Fowler was mercifully stuffed in a dugout trash can following three games of offensive worthlessness, made a tremendous diving stab at third to keep the ball in the infield and potentially salvage at least one out. Edman made a solid throw to second for the force play, but Kolten Wong, who is otherwise a fantastic defensive player, just straight-up dropped the ball, which cost the Cardinals an out and left the bases loaded.
This was a bad situation for the Cardinals, but if they could get a harmless out from number-eight hitter Victor Robles—say, a shallow pop-fly to right, which could be easily reached by any of three Cardinals defenders—that would go a long way toward helping Hudson out of the inning without any more damage. Robles did his part, chasing a low sinker and skying the ball to a part of the field where it could not possibly help his team. Until!
The Cardinals make a bit of a deal with the devil when they elevate José Martínez from situational hitter to starting outfielder, improving their offense with his bat while accepting some horrendous defense. It’s totally understandable and forgivable in the context of this series, where the team scored two total runs over the first three games and stood on the brink of getting swept. But there’s always the risk that Martínez’s dopey defensive instincts will cause some sort of calamity, and this was that. Instead of getting out of the inning on Edman’s sweet play and then a fairly straightforward pop to right, Martínez failed to call off Wong on a play that routinely goes to the outfielder, and the Cardinals got zero outs, and allowed a totally stupid run, and still had the bases loaded. Yikes.
The Nationals—it completely blows my mind that this can be said about the Nationals, in the playoffs—were prepared to capitalize. Catcher Yan Gomes lined a single to left, scoring Howie Kendrick and Zimmerman; the Cardinals, out of sheer desperation, turned to Game 2 starter Adam Wainwright out of the pen; following a sacrifice bunt from Nationals starter Patrick Corbin, Trea Turner also singled to left, driving in Robles and Gomes. This may not have been St. Louis’s wild and historic 10-run first in Game 5 against Atlanta, but seven runs is a huge deficit to overcome, especially in a series where your lineup has not yet fully figured out which direction to face at the plate.
But the Cardinals, to their credit, made a run at it. They weathered an electric start from Corbin, who struck out 10 batters in the first three [CORRECTION: four!] innings, and then beat him up and chased him off in the fifth, on some sharp small-ball and then a big two-run double from Martínez, working off his blooper debt.
This is always awful news for the Nationals, whenever they have to dip into their bullpen before the seventh inning. It did not help that St. Louis’s bullpen locked in and kept the Nationals off the board after that big first. Turning the ball over to hard-throwing but unreliable Tanner Rainey, to face a desperate team with surging momentum, had to take years off the life of Nationals manager Davey Martinez. But whatever has afflicted the Cardinals’ bats this series turns out to have been more powerful than the season-long suckitude of that dreaded Nats bullpen—Rainey worked a clean sixth; Sean Doolittle worked a clean seventh; Daniel Hudson narrowly worked his way around inherited trouble in the eighth, and then closed out the win with a clean ninth.
So the Nationals head to the World Series, where they will almost certainly be significant underdogs to whoever comes out of the American League. They’ll have plenty of time to prepare, with the Astros up two games to one over the Yankees but another two games left to play in New York. That time off can be a blessing or a curse—these being the Nationals, it’s still safer to bet on the latter—but the team has already exorcised a lot of its demons in these playoffs. And they earned the gratitude of the very cosmos for sending the Cardinals to hell. That’s got to count for something.