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Nationals take 2-0 lead over Cardinals in National League Championship Series with 3-1 victory

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina slams his bat after flying out in Game 2 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium. Molina was 5 for 33 in the postseason. (Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com)

There are times, usually in October, when the afternoon sun catches the crowning ironwork at Busch Stadium at an angle that shadows cut through the infield, creating scallops of light near the mound that make pitches flicker and hitters hesitate. Against a journeyman pitcher it can be maddening, and against Max Scherzer it’s like catching a hornet through a strobe light.

For the Cardinals, their swings uncertain, the results were about the same as if the sun were overhead or the stadium aglow.

The offense remains in the dark.

Homecoming king Scherzer took a no-hitter through six innings and muscled the Washington Nationals to a 3-1 victory Saturday in Game 2 and a commanding lead in the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals leave behind the shadows of Busch Stadium for the monuments of Washington, D.C., trailing in the best-of-seven series two games to none, and in search of any semblance of offense.

In consecutive games, Nationals starters have carried no-hitters through six innings twice, and the Cardinals’ starting lineup has produced two hits total and is still looking for its first RBI of the series. It’s as hard to find the pitch in the shadows as it is to distinguish between what is an exceptional pitcher and what is a vanishing offense.

“When you combine both at the same time, it’s hard, and that’s what’s happened,” Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said. “We’ve got to regroup and figure it out.”

Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright allowed a solo home run to lead off the third inning and that was it for seven innings as he matched St. Louis native Scherzer inning for inning, almost zero for zero, and curveball for fastball. Wainwright struck out a playoff career-best 11 and with Scherzer became only the second pair of opposing starters with that many strikeouts each in a postseason game. In the first seven innings of the game, as hitters dealt with the most difficult shadows, the only runner to get to third base was Michael A. Taylor — on his home run for a 1-0 lead.

A day after Anibal Sanchez took a no-hitter against the Cardinals into the eighth, Scherzer followed by retiring 18 of the first 20 Cardinals he faced. The Parkway Central High grad and former Mizzou All-American, in his first playoff start in his hometown, had his no-hitter snapped in the seventh by Paul Goldschmidt but finished with seven shutout innings.

“He can do anything he wants,” Goldschmidt said of Scherzer. “He’s got four really good pitches. He can use them in all four quadrants of the zone. He can come right at you with strikes. He can make you chase. He can basically do whatever he wants and he does. He mixes it up. And he beat us.

“No runs and one run,” Goldschmidt concluded, “it’s not going to win many games.”

Since a 13-run deluge against Atlanta in Game 5 of a National League Division Series that carried the Cardinals into the NLCS, the offense has gone dry. As the stage has gotten bigger and the lights brighter, the Cardinals’ lagging offense has been unplugged and exposed for what it was coming into the playoffs, the weakest of the field. Goldschmidt’s single in the fifth inning of Game 5 was the last of the Cardinals’ hits in that game — and until his single in the seventh inning Saturday the Cardinals were one-for-52 (.019). The Cardinals’ starters in that span were zero-for-51 with 23 strikeouts. Pinch-hitter Jose Martinez has the Cardinals’ only RBI — with a double in the eighth Saturday — and two of the Cardinals’ four hits in the series. He also has two at-bats.

Every other Cardinal is two for 55, combined.

The starters didn’t get their first hit against the Nationals until their 46th at-bat of the NLCS. The Cardinals’ immovable offense has met Washington’s imposing force.

“In the postseason, most of the time you’ve got the best pitchers in the game going out there and laying everything on the line,” Wainwright said. “If a great pitcher like Max or Sanchez goes out there and doesn’t miss any spots and locates everything and is nasty and keeps the ball up and down and in and out and doesn’t miss a lot over the plate it’s going to be tough for hitters. That’s just the way it is. Pitching always wins in these kind of situations. Their pitchers are pitching great. There’s nothing more I can say other than that.”

Entering the start against his friend and contemporary and three-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer, Wainwright said he had to “match zeroes.” Taylor tagged a misplaced cutter in the third, but otherwise Wainwright did it.

His second time through the Nationals’ order, Wainwright struck out three, and in the sixth he struck out three consecutive batters who were seeing him for the third time. He caught MVP candidate Anthony Rendon staring at a curveball. The eighth came unwound with a one-out single by pinch-hitter and former teammate Matt Adams. A bloop single followed, and then outfielder Adam Eaton got a fourth look at Wainwright. Eaton described the shadows as “extremely difficult,” and he mentioned twice that Cardinals infielder Kolten Wong had a check swing in which the pitch went off the barrel of the bat. The shadows made it almost as difficult to field the ball as hit the ball. They started to clear for Eaton in the eighth.

“The first time I actually saw the ball the whole way,” he said.

On a 3-2 pitch, Eaton talked himself out of gearing up for the fastball and instead got the curveball. He pulled it down the line for a two-run double that widened the Nats’ lead to 3-0 and kept Martinez’s pinch-hit RBI from tying the game.

Scherzer already had turned the game over to the bullpen by then.

“I’m not trying to do anything great,” said Scherzer, who often does. “Just throwing up zeroes. It’s a 1-0 game (for seven innings). It’s razor thin out there. I’m really thinking, ‘Don’t give up a solo shot.’”

The Cardinals haven’t had one of those in 33 innings. The Cardinals’ 13 runs in Game 5 against the Braves all came without a home run, and in two games against the Nationals’ pitchers they’ve managed to get only three runs to third base. One got there on an error. Another reached on a groundout after stealing second. And on Saturday, after a two-out single, Paul DeJong scored all the way from first when Martinez’s line drive to center cleared Taylor’s reach. The Nats’ bullpen, including lefty starter Patrick Corbin, handled the final four outs from there to secure the two-run win and the 2-0 lead in the series.

The series resumes Monday at Nationals Park, where Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter noted late Saturday “it’s not going to get any easier.” Washington has Stephen Strasburg set to start Game 3, Corbin ready to go in Game 4, and Sanchez, fresh off mastery of the Cardinals, available for a Game 5 if the Cardinals can force the series that far.

A shadow of themselves offensively in the first two games of the NLCS, the Cardinals are left to find their way home on the road.

“Against a pitching staff like that you always have a tendency to do too much,” Wong said. “You know how good they are. You don’t want to fall behind because you know with what they have they can really shut down a lineup. Like they have the past two days. We know how good they are. We’re always up for the competition. We’re always up to prove people wrong. That’s what this team is about.

“That’s what we’re going to have to continue to do.”

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