WASHINGTON • They have been to the wrong side of town before, bypassing the safer way home by walking straight into trouble.
Wherever danger lurks, you will find the Cardinals.
You will shout a warning, and tell them to be smarter than this. They will ignore the advice. They’ll do it their way. You’ll see them backed into a corner. You will see them surrounded. You will watch them get knocked down. You will see them staggered. You will wonder how they can recover to rise again.
Here’s what you won’t see: fear.
"We’ve been involved in winner-take-all games," second baseman Daniel Descalso said. "So we’re not panicked over here."
The Cardinals put themselves at risk again on Thursday night at Nationals Park, losing Game 4 of the NL division series on a stunning, ninth-inning homer by Washington leadoff hitter Jayson Werth.
The home run gave the Nationals a 2-1 win, tied the series 2-2, made Washington go delirious with baseball fever and set up a Game 5 showdown for tonight. The old town’s first MLB postseason victory since 1933 turned Werth into the most popular bearded man in The District since Abraham Lincoln.
Werth became the hero by winning a dramatic 13-pitch engagement with young Cardinals power arm Lance Lynn. I didn't like Mike Matheny's choice of Lynn in that spot, but the manager didn't trust his young relievers to close out a game, so he kept Jason Motte in storage for a save situation that never materialized.
That's modern baseball for you, and managing by rote. In the old-school way of thinking, you never use your closer in a tie game, especially on the road. Matheny just fits in. It is what it is.
Are any of the guys that manage teams capable of independent thought? Yes: Washington manager Davey Johnson, who isn't afraid to reject these time-honored baseball customs. Davey was much more aggressive in utilizing his bullpen in Game 4. Johnson had no problem deploying two bazookas (Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen) that closed for him this season. And no save situation was required.
Anyway, Lynn's 11th pitch of the encounter was a strike, uncalled by home plate umpire Jim Joyce. It was the final moment of incoherence for Joyce; his strike zone was so wide, you could have fit Armando Galarraga’s lost perfect game in there.
I’m not saying Joyce missed a lot of pitches, but the some of the balls that he identified as strikes were so far out there, they appeared on radar screens inside the flight tower at Reagan National Airport.
"We knew after a few innings that Jim had a pretty wide zone," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "You have to work with what you have. Both sides had to deal with it."
That’s why I won’t blame this grim outcome on Joyce. Yes, I think the Cardinals got the worst of it for an obvious reason: The numbers over the 162-game regular season show that St. Louis has better plate discipline than Washington. So it figures that a team that specializes in patience and knowing the strike zone would be most impacted by an impatient umpire and an unknown strike zone.
That said, holding Joyce responsible for the Cardinals’ defeat would only be fair if he’d actually taken all of the team’s at-bats. The Cardinals did next to nothing against Washington starter Ross Detwiler and relievers Jordan Zimmermann, Clippard and Storen. Well, not unless you count the strikeouts. The Cardinals did that 10 times.
St. Louis left eight runners on and went hitless in three at-bats with runners in scoring position. The boys squandered a superb start from Kyle Lohse, who gave up one run in seven innings.
The Cardinals are somehow tied in this series even though their pitchers have a 1.80 ERA in the four games. That includes a 1.33 ERA by the starters. When your pitchers go four games and allow nine total runs, the series should be over. But then again, we're talking about the Cardinals here.
All season we’ve watched their lineup have extreme fluctuations. The Cardinals either bulk up on runs, or starve themselves. Appropriately, the same pattern has emerged in the NLDS, so at least the hitters are staying within character.
In their two victories over Washington the Cardinals have averaged 10 runs, batted .375 and pounded five homers as part of their collection of 14 extra-base hits. The feast includes a .308 average with runners in scoring position.
In their two losses, the Cardinals scored three total runs, had six hits in 57 at-bats (.105) with no extra-base hits, 18 strikeouts, and an 0-for-11 goose egg with runners in scoring position.
In their two wins Washington pitchers have a 1.00 ERA. In the two losses, the Nats' ERA is 10.06 ERA.
I can’t explain.
They can’t explain.
This stopped making sense a long time ago. But this 2-1 kick to the head in Game 4 didn’t rattle the Cardinals. They know they can settle this strange series tonight in a rematch of Game 1 starters Adam Wainwright and Gio Gonzalez.
If the Cardinals win they’ll fly to San Francisco to open the NL championship series. If they lose – well, they aren’t thinking about that.
The Cardinals should handle the inherent pressure of an elimination game. The Cardinals have been on the brink of going down and out five times over the last two postseasons, and won all five games.
The list: Games 4 and 5 of the 2011 NLDS vs. Philadelphia; Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series against Texas; last Friday’s sudden-death match in the NL wild-card play-in game with Atlanta. Two of the wins were on the road, Game 5 at Philly and the lotto-ball game at Atlanta.
This doesn’t even take into account the Cardinals' incredible regular-season comeback in 2011 when they wiped out a 10.5 game deficit in a little more than a month to seize the league's wild card spot.
That familiar resilience resurfaced again late this season, when the Cardinals regrouped after a hideous 5-13 stretch to hold off several contenders for the No. 2 wild card pass. They didn't lose consecutive games after Sept. 15. That's the challenge this evening: avoid two losses in a row.
The Cardinals may not win tonight, but it won’t be because they fry under pressure or can’t maneuver out of danger. They may lose because of Davey Johnson's clear edge in experience. They may lose because Gonzalez is an elite pitcher who deals his best at home. But the stage is bigger now, with more on the line, and Gio hasn’t pitched a game like this before.
Wainwright has been there, bagging four saves in the team’s 2006 run to a World Series title. Wainwright notched an epic strikeout of Carlos Beltran to save Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Late Thursday night, Wainwright talked about the loud, animated setting of Nationals Park.
I told him: well, but Shea Stadium was much louder in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
"For a minute it was," Wainwright said with a smile.
Then Wainwright made the noise go away by whiffing Beltran with the bases loaded and the stadium literally shaking. Shea went silent. The Cardinals had a 3-1 victory. Seven years later, and in a different role, Wainwright has a chance to hush another crowd and turn off the lights in a hostile stadium.
This assignment is extra meaningful to Wainwright, who missed the 2011 postseason healing from Tommy John elbow surgery that wiped out an entire year of career-prime pitching. He could only watch and cheer his teammates as they won it all in 2011. Now, he’s is in a position to pitch the Cardinals into the NLCS.
"The postseason is so special anyway," Wainwright said. "This team has battled through so much this year and fought so hard to get where we are. Just to get in the postseason again it really can’t be understated how special that is, and to me in general. I feel very blessed to know that I can go out and compete tomorrow."
The Cardinals are taking another walk on the wild side. They are backed into the corner again. Same as it ever was. They know what they must do: Rely on that championship experience and pedigree to pitch and hit their way out of danger.