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St. Louis Cardinals v. Washington Nationals in NLCS Game 1

Cardinals infielder Kolten Wong fails to make it to first base on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against Washington at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com)

As Paul Goldschmidt retraced his steps toward the Cardinals’ dugout for the third time in Friday night’s 2-0 loss to the Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship series, he slowed for one second in front of first base and used his toe to tuck a divot of dirt back into place.

Rarely have the Busch Stadium basepaths been so well preserved by the Redbirds in a postseason game.

Jose Martinez’s eighth-inning pinch-hit single spoiled Washington starter Anibal Sanchez’s no-hitter and helped the Cardinals dodge an undesirable history lesson. The consolation prize delivered in front of a stunned ballpark was just as sour.

The Cardinals have fallen behind in the NLCS before their opponent fields its best team.

It feels wrong to call Game 1 of a best-of-seven series a must-win. This will be decided by four, not the first. But consider the circumstances that were working in the Cardinals’ favor on Friday.

  • The game was at Busch, where the Cardinals won two of three against the Nationals during the regular season.

  • Sanchez is not named Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, or Patrick Corbin. He is No. 4 in the Nationals’ rotation. To illustrate the difference between him and the other three, remember that the Nationals used Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin in relief between their wild-card win against the Brewers and their dethroning of the 106-win Dodgers in the NLDS. The Cardinals had scored three earned runs in five innings against Sanchez in a 3-2 win in April. He went 7-6 with a 3.48 on the road this season. Good, sure. Not elite. At least not until Friday.

  • Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, who had started five of Washington’s six postseason games, was still going through concussion protocol in the hours leading up to first pitch, the result of Wednesday’s Walker Buehler fastball to the wrist and face. Suzuki did not play. Yan Gomes started instead, making just his second start of the postseason, and his first since Game 1 of the NLDS.

  • Nationals center fielder Victor Robles was again out of the starting lineup because of a hamstring strain. Michael A. Taylor started for him instead. Taylor and Gomes hit seventh and eighth in the lineup. That should tell you something.

  • And then there was the big one. Nationals closer Daniel Hudson, a rare bright spot in a bad bullpen, was not an option Friday. Hudson, who had converted in two of his two save opportunities this postseason and holds a postseason ERA of 0.00 in four appearances (3.2 innings), was with his wife, welcoming a child into the world. A beautiful event. Also something the Cardinals needed to take advantage of. With Hudson on paternity leave, the Nationals plugged in Wander Suero, a righthander who had initially been left off the NLCS roster. Hudson was one of three Nationals relievers who was both a) not a starter moonlighting as a reliever and b) in possession of a postseason ERA beneath 3.00. With Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin off limits (for now) because of the switch to a best-of-seven series, Hudson's absence left Fernando Rodney and Sean Doolittle as the only options in the bullpen that didn’t make stomachs turn in D.C.

Call it irony, wasted opportunity, or a combination of the two, but the elements of the game that should have helped the Cardinals seemed to hurt them.

With changeups that floated like butterflies, Sanchez stung the Cardinals into a trance-like state that produced an endless parade of weak fly outs.

“He picked us up today,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said. “Big time.”

Not that Martinez needed any encouragement to leave Sanchez in, but the absence of Hudson certainly made it easier to send Sanchez to the plate for his eighth-inning at-bat. By that point, the Cardinals would have preferred Scherzer. Anyone but Sanchez and his pinpoint accuracy. By the time Martinez (Jose) had spoiled the no-hitter, and Martinez (Dave) had pulled his pitcher, Sanchez’s start had left just 1 1/3 innings up for grabs. For Doolittle, of course. So much for piling on that problematic bulllpen.

"He was just really good," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said about Sanchez. "He made a lot of quality pitches, and didn't give us a lot we could put good swings on."

The best swing by a Cardinal not named Jose Martinez went to Shildt, who came out swinging for his lineup after it went quietly into the chilly night.

"I understand the question, but I find it interesting when essentially the same lineup just scored 13 runs (against the Braves in Game 5 of the NLDS)," Shildt said. "I don't mind answering the question, but I'm going to give a good reason for it, because I got a similar question before an elimination game at the end of the season against Chicago, and we scored nine runs. I'm not going to be knee-jerk with one game when we just got through winning a series. And we have gotten to this point with the group that we have, with guys that have taken good at-bats."

As for the one run the Nationals needed to claim Game 1, don't forget who supplied it. In what would have been another start for Suzuki if he was healthy, Gomes doubled to center field off Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas to score what turned out to be the game-winner. Gomes finished with one more hit (two) than all Cardinals combined (one).

"Huge," said Dave Martinez about Gomes' Game 1 impact. "They (Gomes and Sanchez) had a great game plan together. He very seldom caught Sanchez this year, but he was unbelievable today. Really was. I'm proud of him."

The Cardinals were left cursing a pitching attack that exposed — once again — their jarring struggles against offspeed pitches, especially when an in-command pitcher keeps them away from the heart of the plate. Why any pitcher who can throw decent offspeed stuff ever gives this team a fastball within the general vicinity of the strike zone is a mystery. The Cardinals' inability to adapt on the fly resulted in their 11th and most costly shutout of the season. Thirty times in 2019, the Cardinals have failed to score more than one run. They're 1-29 in those games.

And still there were chances. Twice, the Cardinals managed to get a man to third base, then left him stranded there.

Truth is, though, it could have been worse. The Nationals went two-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left 13 men stranded.

Bad news, Cardinals.

Hudson will be in St. Louis for Game 2. Sanchez could be back for Game 5, if there is one. And look what’s coming next: Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin.

Oh, my.

As they saved a season that started 19-31, the Nationals have celebrated a phrase that prioritizes perseverance.

“Stay in the fight,” read the slogan across Scherzer’s T-shirt on Friday afternoon as he previewed Saturday's Game 2 start.

They just won the first round while their heavyweights watched.

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