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Instant Analysis: Nats 3, Cardinals 2

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Instant Analysis: Nats 3, Cardinals 2

Updated at 9:00 p.m.

ST. LOUIS -- Their starting pitcher couldn't find the strike zone to save his life. Their only player with considerable postseason experience couldn't deliver a hit with men in scoring position. Their Gold Glove corner infielders couldn't make routine plays in the field.

In so many ways, the Nationals couldn't have drawn up a worse set of storylines for their first-ever postseason game. And yet, when they looked up at the scoreboard at Busch Stadium at the end of 3 hours and 40 minutes of the most tension-filled ballgame a team from Washington had experienced in 79 years, wouldn't you know they found themselves victorious.

Rookie Tyler Moore delivered the biggest base hit in Nationals history, a two-out, two-strike, two-run single to right in the top of the eighth, turning what was shaping up to be a ragged Game 1 of the National League Division Series into a rousing 3-2 win.

"I don't really know how we won that game, to be honest," reliever Craig Stammen said. "But we pulled it out somehow, and that's kind of how the playoffs goes. You just kind of pull games out."

Unable all afternoon to produce in clutch situations, the Nationals found salvation in the 25-year-old Moore, who poked a 1-2 pitch from lefty Marc Rzepczynski into right field. Michael Morse and Ian Desmond raced home to give the visitors their first lead since the top of the second and leave a sellout crowd of 47,078 in stunned silence.

"It was overwhelming," Moore said. "I got chills out there. It was great, because 50,000 fans and you couldn't hear anything. It was great."

Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen then combined to finish this one off and preserve the first postseason victory by a Washington major-league team since Game 3 of the 1933 World Series at Griffith Stadium.

Just like that, Gio Gonzalez's disastrous start, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa's struggles at the plate, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche's fielding woes became afterthoughts. The Nationals, despite all that went wrong on a chilly October afternoon in St. Louis, took a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series.

"The first game in a five-game series is crucial," Zimmerman said. "It's such a short series. For us to be able to kind of put their backs up against the wall, now they have to win tomorrow. ... For us to get this first game is huge. If we can go out and get the second game tomorrow, obviously it's a huge advantage for us."

Three full hours before gametime, Davey Johnson was talking about his philosophy with starting pitchers and how that wouldn't change just because the calendar shifted to October.

"Gio has struggled at times during the season," the manager explained. "A couple times out, I think he's about 50 pitches after two innings. And Gio will usually come by me and say: "Relax, Skip, I got it. I got it."

Johnson surely had to be worried about his postseason ace after two ridiculously wild innings to open Game 1. Gonzalez walked five of the first nine batters he faced, including the Cardinals' seventh, eighth and ninth hitters in succession, uncorked a run-scoring wild pitch and threw only 27 of his first 55 pitches for strikes.

Somehow through all of that, the left-hander kept St. Louis to only two runs. So Johnson stuck with his starter, never making anyone in the bullpen move a muscle until the bottom of the fifth.

"I resisted the temptation," Johnson said. "I was about one hitter away from getting Stammen ready, and he got out of it and pitched pretty good until he got a little wild there at the end. But he kept us in there, and that's what your ace does."

Gonzalez did manage to right the ship enough to muddle his way through five hair-raising innings, never allowing more than those two early runs. He wound up posting one of the craziest-looking pitching lines in postseason history, giving up only one hit while walking seven, striking out five and throwing a whopping 110 pitches.

"It definitely drains your battery," Gonzalez said. "The fans are in there, you're at someone else's house trying to go out there and get a win. It's pretty hard. It was kind of interesting, I kept everybody on the edge of their seat. I kept talking to myself, which I normally do, and just said I'm going to give these guys a chance. I don't want to blow it out of the water."

In doing so, Gonzalez somehow kept his team in the game, the Nationals trailing 2-1 nearly the entire afternoon. They scored their first run thanks to another clutch hit from Kurt Suzuki (who became a real force at the plate in September) but squandered plenty of opportunities to add more.

Despite striking out 10 times in 5 23 innings against Adam Wainwright, the Nationals did put 10 men on base against the Cardinals' Game 1 starter. But aside from Suzuki's early base hit, they couldn't produce in big spots.

Collectively, the Nationals were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position through the game's first 7 23 innings, with Werth the biggest culprit. Twice the man with the most postseason experience on Washington's roster came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. And twice he failed to bring a run home, grounding out to end the second and striking out to end the sixth.

"We had a lot of chances," he said. "Man, we had some chances. I had some chances. I felt like we were going to score at some point."

Their lineup unable to push across the tying run, the Nationals' bullpen and defense did their part to keep this a 2-1 game. Werth atoned for his struggles at the plate by battling the sun to rob Daniel Descalso of what would have been a two-run homer in the sixth.

Ryan Mattheus then authored one of the greatest relief pitching performances in postseason history. Given the ball with the bases loaded and nobody out in the seventh, the right-hander remarkably recorded three outs on only two pitches, getting a forceout at the plate and then getting a 6-4-3 double play to keep the Nationals' late-inning hopes alive.

"My mindset was: Come in, get a groundball and hopefully minimize the damage," Mattheus said. "If I get three outs and give up one run there, then that's a good job, too. Luckily I was lucky enough to make two good pitches, they were hit right at guys, and we got three outs."

And then got the biggest postseason hit by a player wearing a Washington uniform in a really long time.

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Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or ‘Hondo.’,” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”

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Gonzalez takes the mound as the Nats kick off weekend set vs. Rockies

Gonzalez takes the mound as the Nats kick off weekend set vs. Rockies

Nats (74-53) vs. Rockies (60-67) at Nationals Park

The Nationals will look to make it back-to-back wins Friday night as they host the Colorado Rockies for the first of a three-game weekend set. Washington will send Gio Gonzalez (8-9, 4.30 ERA) to the mound to oppose rookie right hander Jeff Hoffman (0-1, 13.50 ERA). 

The last time these two clubs met, the Nats dropped two of three in Colorado, as they were overwhelmed by the Rockies' power-laden lineup. Dusty Baker and company will hope to fare better this time around in the friendly confines of Nats Park.  

Speaking of Baker, his lineup will be without Wilson Ramos for the second straight day. The Nats' skipper explained before Friday's game that his catcher is fine, and that the move is to simply give him an additional day of rest. Jose Lobaton, who called Thursday night's shutout against the Orioles, will be back in there and batting eighth. Other than that, it's the typical lineup. 

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN 2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Rockies - Jeff Hoffman

NATS

CF Trea Turner
LF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
1B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
LHP Gio Gonzalez

ROCKIES

CF Charlie Blackmon
1B Stephen Cardullo 
3B Nolan Arenado
RF Carlos Gonzalez
LF Ryan Raburn
C Nick Hundley
2B Daniel Descalso 
SS Cristhian Adames
RHP Jeff Hoffman

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MLB Power Rankings: The Royals arrived, just in time

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MLB Power Rankings: The Royals arrived, just in time

Just when everyone was writing the 2016 Kansas City Royals' obituary, they win 9 in a row and plant themselves in the thick of the playoff race. It's possibly the most Royals thing in the world to do. How did the other teams fare? To the rankings! 

30. Atlanta Braves (LW: 30)

Adios, Jeff Francoeur. 

29. Minnesota Twins (LW: 29)

It's still weird to think that before this season, people thought they'd be a playoff team. 

28.  Arizona Diamondbacks (LW: 28)

Matt Wisler looked dominant in his almost-no-hitter of the Diamondbacks. 

27. Cincinnati Reds (LW: 25) 

The Joey Votto offseason trade rumors are starting to heat up! 

26. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (LW: 26)

Are there really rumors that the Angels are the team seriously looking into Tim Tebow?

SEE THE REST OF THE RANKINGS HERE