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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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Nationals beat Braves, snap losing skid behind Stephen Strasburg's strong start

Nationals beat Braves, snap losing skid behind Stephen Strasburg's strong start

ATLANTA (AP) -- Stephen Strasburg struck out a season-high 11 and kept up his recent domination of the Atlanta Braves, leading Washington to a 3-2 win Sunday that stopped the Nationals' four-game losing streak.

Strasburg (5-1) allowed five hits in 7 2/3 innings, beating Atlanta for the second time this season and improving to 7-1 in his last nine starts against the Braves. He is 10-8 overall against Atlanta.

He reached double digits in strikeouts for the second time this season after fanning 10 Braves on April 20.

Strasburg faded in the eighth, when Dansby Swanson hit a two-run double. Koda Glover struck out Nick Markakis to end the inning and finished the six-hitter for his third save.

Daniel Murphy hit a second-inning homer off Jaime Garcia (1-3) and the Nationals added two unearned runs in the third.

Matt Adams was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and hit into a ninth-inning double play in his debut for Atlanta, a day after he was acquired from St. Louis. Matt Kemp led off the ninth, and Adams hit a line drive that was caught by Ryan Zimmerman, who stepped on first base.

Garcia allowed three runs -- one earned -- and seven hits in eight innings with no walks.

Washington took a 3-0 lead in the third following fielding errors by Markakis in right and Garcia. Bryce Harper had a run-scoring single.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: 3B Anthony Rendon and C Matt Wieters were given days off from the starting lineup. Rendon entered at third base in the eighth.

Braves: RHP Kris Medlen allowed one hits in six scoreless innings Saturday in his first start for Class A Florida. He missed most of 2016 with shoulder problems after his second Tommy John surgery. "That would be a real nice piece to have," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. Medlen pitched for Kansas City in 2015-16 and his last season with Atlanta was in 2013, when he was 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Following an off day, RHP Jacob Turner (2-2) is expected to start when the Nationals will open a series against Seattle on Tuesday.

Braves: RHP Mike Foltynewicz (2-4) will take a 0-3 career record in three starts against Pittsburgh into Monday night's series opener against the Pirates.

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2017 MLB Power Rankings: As Bryce Harper goes, so do the Nationals

2017 MLB Power Rankings: As Bryce Harper goes, so do the Nationals

A week ago, the Nationals were looking unstoppable. Bryce Harper was hitting walkoff dingers left and right, there were multiple winning streaks, and the bullpen was only sorta bad. 

2017 MLB POWER RANKINGS

A week's worth of games later - against the Braves, Pirates and Phillies, no less - and the Nats don't look nearly as stainless. Harper's hitting under .200 since his Mother's Day walkoff, the team lost 5 of 6, and the bullpen turned back into a pumpkin. Because of that, there's a new team at the top of the Power Rankings this week. Who is it? To the rankings! 

30. MIAMI MARLINS

2017 Record: 15-28
Previous Ranking: 24
Last 10 Games: 2-8
Notable Performance: Dee Gordon (.318/.400/.364 last week)

Stanton hasn't homered in over two weeks, a stretch of 12 games. After going 2-8 over the last 10, including that weird Dodgers game, the Marlins have seen better weeks.  

29. SAN DIEGO PADRES

2017 Record: 16-30
Previous Ranking: 29
Last 10 Games: 3-7
Notable Performance: Brad Hand (.300/.500/.600 last week)

Wil Myers' underwhelming season continues. The outfielder is hitting .150 over the last week, and only .219 over the last month. The Padres best position player is only worth .6 bWAR, and that's 5th-best on the team.

28. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

2017 Record: 15-26
Previous Ranking: 23
Last 10 Games: 2-8
Notable Performance: Daniel Nava (.429/.429/.571 last week)

They ran into Texas at exactly the wrong time. Getting starts that are consistently like Aaron Nola's last one will be huge for his development this season. 

27. KANSAS CITY ROYALS

2017 Record: 18-25
Previous Ranking: 27
Last 10 Games: 6-4
Notable Performance: Lorenzo Cain (.087/.125/.087 last week)

They're starting to play better, but upcomming series with the Yankees and Indians aren't making life any easier for KC. Jason Vargas (?!) has been their most valuable player this year (2.0 bWAR). 

26. ATLANTA BRAVES

2017 Record: 18-23
Previous Ranking: 30
Last 10 Games: 7-3
Notable Performance: Matt Kemp (.375/.423/.708 last week)

Losing Freeman for three months because of some dumb unspoken beef is just a testament to how stupid unwritten baseball rules are. The silver lining to this year, though, is that the Braves are going to fleece some team for Matt Kemp in July. 

SEE THE REST OF THE RANKINGS HERE