WASHINGTON • Asked before Game 5 of the National League division series if righthander Jordan Zimmermann would start the league championship series if the Washington Nationals advanced, manager Davey Johnson answered, rather cheekily, "Yes, Jordan Zimmermann will be the starter in Game 1 on Sunday."
For the first three innings of the decisive game Friday night, it looked just that easy for the Nationals, who dropped a barrage of extra-base hits on Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright and took a 6-0 lead.
But 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez again was wild, not quite as bad as last Sunday, and he helped pitch the Cardinals back into the game.
Then, as the Nationals tried desperately to close out Washington’s first postseason series victory since they won the 1924 World Series — that was only 32,145 days ago — the Cardinals pecked away at a deer-in-the-headlights Washington bullpen until the Nationals succumbed, 9-7, sending the Cardinals to the National League championship series for the seventh time in 13 seasons.
Nationals pitchers walked eight hitters, including closer Drew Storen issuing two-out, two-out walks to Yadier Molina and David Freese to keep the Cardinals’ four-run ninth-inning rally in motion.
"You can’t win big ballgames giving up free passes," said Johnson. "Not to go after them at the end was not fun to watch."
A dejected Johnson said he thought Storen had been "too fine," in the ninth but added, in oblique reference to Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson (two walks), "He wasn’t alone."
Storen said the ninth-inning meltdown "could be a learning process. But not right now."
The Nationals had been hitting just .215 through the first four games of the series and 19-year-old Bryce Harper and Kurt Suzuki had been batting .056 and .077, respectively.
Johnson didn’t address Suzuki before the game but said Harper "has had four games now, so he should be calmed down tonight. He should be all right."
Harper tripled in a run and scored in the first. He homered off Wainwright in the third. Suzuki also had two hits, the last a single past a disgusted Jason Motte and into center field to drive in what appeared to be the key insurance run in the eighth.
When he pitched in Game 1 of the National League division series last weekend in St. Louis, Gonzalez made reference to the 54-degree temperature he worked in, rather than the 85 degrees he had enjoyed in the previous start. He didn’t necessarily blame the Fahrenheit reading for tying a career high with seven walks in five innings, but he didn’t discount it either.
On Friday, when Hialeah, Fla. product Gonzalez faced the Cardinals, he took the mound with the same temperature, 54 degrees.
After not walking anybody in the first three innings, he issued four walks in the fourth and the fifth innings, which led to three runs.
Gonzalez was gone after five innings, hoping to be rescued by the Nationals bullpen. He gave up five hits plus the four walks but getting Molina on a fly out with the bases loaded to end the fifth, when Gonzalez was behind 2-0 in the count, appeared as if would save his night.
On Sunday, Gonzalez had labored through 110 pitches in five innings. Friday night, he needed 99 pitches to navigate the same distance.
After falling behind leadoff man Jon Jay at 3-0 in the first inning Friday, Gonzalez looked as if he was about to seize control. He got Jay to fly to center on a 3-1 pitch. After Carlos Beltran looped a single, Gonzalez fanned Matt Holliday on an offspeed pitch and got Allen Craig to fly to center.
Buoyed with a three-run lead given him in the bottom of the first, Gonzalez got a break in the second when Freese, who had singled to extend his series hitting streak to five games, took off for second on a two-strike pitch to Pete Kozma. Kozma’s half swing was not called a strike, but the slow-moving Freese was thrown out easily by catcher Suzuki.
When the Nationals had scored three runs or more in a Gonzalez start during the regular season, they were 22-1 and he was 19-1 in those games, the only setback a 9-5 loss to the New York Mets on July 19.
Scoring six or more runs with Gonzalez on the hill, the Nationals were unbeaten — until Friday night.
Shortstop Ian Desmond, who had Daniel Descalso’s grounder go off his glove in the ninth inning, tying the score, said, "It happened. You have to live with it. You hate to say it, but what can you do?
"They’ve proven they’re winners."
Johnson said,"You’ve got to make them earn it, and unfortunately they did."
Asked what he would tell the Nationals fans, Johnson said, "I’m sorry. We’ll make it up to them next year."