Nationals look unbeatable against Cardinals in NLCS: ‘There’s this weird feeling’

ST. LOUIS – They know how baseball works, so they will stop well short of calling themselves invincible.

Instead, the Washington Nationals have performed at such a high level in these playoffs that they have rendered themselves practically unbeatable.

A franchise that 11 days ago was just four outs away from adding to its not-good-enough postseason history has instead taken a tiny opening in a wild card game and burrowed its way to within two victories of the World Series – while rendering the St. Louis Cardinals thoroughly punchless.

Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium, Max Scherzer followed in the footsteps of Game 1 starter Anibal Sanchez and carried a no-hitter into the late innings of a National League Championship Game. Like Sanchez, the no-hitter didn’t last, but the Nationals won.

As they always do these days.

Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman congratulates his teammates. (Photo: Jeff Curry, USA TODAY Sports)

Scherzer struck out 11 Cardinals in his 7 ⅓ innings, but for as great as he and Washington’s starters have been, it was the other end of their ledger that was more telling.

Scarcely used center fielder Michael A. Taylor popped a go-ahead, third-inning home run. No. 2 hitter Adam Eaton turned a one-run game into an eighth-inning extra base hit.

And the Nationals claimed a 3-1 victory that gave them a 2-0 NLCS edge on the Cardinals, with Game 3 at Nationals Park on Monday night.

Sure, they’ll start another ace in Stephen Strasburg, who will battle Cardinals No. 1 man Jack Flaherty. But at this point, kismet may matter as much as Ks for a team that has won six of eight playoff games since facing a 3-1, eighth-inning deficit in the NL knockout match against Milwaukee.

They roared back to win that game and survived two elimination games against the mighty Dodgers.

And now?

“There’s this weird feeling that comes over the dugout, comes over the bullpen, in the sixth, seventh inning of games,” says Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who recorded seven crucial late-inning outs in Games 1 and 2. “When the game is close, the game is hanging in the balance, we’re finding ways to push runs across, like we did last night, like we did today.

“It’s really, really cool.”

It’s the exact opposite of this team’s identity in May, when their bullpen beyond Doolittle was in tatters and a 19-31 start appeared to doom them.

At that point, they’d suffered 11 losses when blowing a lead in the seventh inning or later.

Now? They own the eighth inning – a three-run rally to topple the Brewers 4-3, a two-homer salvo to erase another 3-1 deficit against the Dodgers in the decisive NLDS Game 5, and two runs Saturday that proved decisive.

Overall, they are 80-40 since May 23 (a .666 clip), including 6-2 this postseason.

One sample size is massive. The other is small. But both square with what’s unfolded on the field – and with what’s now at stake.

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“When you catch a break like we did in the wild-card game, you start to feel like,” says Doolittle, before pausing and perhaps catching himself, “… you start to play with so much confidence, because you never feel like you’re out of a game.

“When our starting pitching is doing what it’s been able to do, giving us a chance to win every night, going deep into games, I feel like everybody’s playing with this calm confidence that we’re going to find a way to win.”

Yeah, the pitching’s been OK.

Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner making his fourth playoff appearance, struggled with a high pitch count early but held St. Louis hitless into the seventh, when Goldschmidt cleanly singled in front of Juan Soto.

A night earlier, a pinch-hit single by Jose Martinez with two outs in the eighth was all that kept Sanchez from a bid at history.

Probably a relief overall for manager Dave Martinez, who didn’t have to fret over a pair of 1-0 playoff leads clashing with the historic opportunities Scherzer and Sanchez had.

It wasn’t the first time – in 2013, as Detroit Tigers, they had a nearly duplicate scenario, holding the Boston Red Sox hitless in Game 1 and 2 starts before a high pitch count claimed Sanchez after six innings and Scherzer gave up a single with two outs in the sixth the next night.

New league, new team, same result. And the Cardinals are bearing the brunt – their starting eight position players have a combined two hits in 54 at-bats – just one off Nationals starters.

“I know when Sanchie gets locked in, he’s nasty,” Scherzer said Saturday. “He can absolutely do anything with the baseball. He’s such a treat to watch.

“For me, I’m just in the moment. I’m not trying to do anything great.”

That goes for the whole team – going on five months now and eight scintillating playoff games.

“Right now,” says Scherzer, "it just seems like anybody who gets their number called is going to do something big.”

In the small picture – and now, in a very big one.

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