Jayson Werth's Washington Nationals were as good as it got during the regular season, compiling a majors-high 98 wins.
That doesn't count for much come the postseason, where the St. Louis Cardinals excel. So what if manager Tony La Russa retired after last year's World Series title? Who cares that slugger Albert Pujols left via free agency? Just like in 2011, the Cardinals are a wild-card club that finds a different player to lead the way each game, it seems.
Heading into Thursday's Game 4 of their best-of-five NL division series, the Cardinals built a 2-1 lead by outscoring the Nationals 22-7.
"It's going to be tough to score if you don't hit," Werth said after St. Louis starter Chris Carpenter and three relievers shut down Washington 8-0 in Game 3 on Wednesday. "But I believe in this team. I believe in these guys. We've been here all year. Over a 162-game season, we were the best team in baseball. I still feel that way."
The Cardinals like their chances, too.
"It's the biggest game of the year," center fielder Jon Jay said. "We all know how important it is. You can't look ahead."
Kyle Lohse, who beat the Atlanta Braves in last week's one-game, wild-card playoff, gets the start for St. Louis. Ross Detwiler pitches for Washington, which is sticking to its long-stated plan of keeping Stephen Strasburg on the sideline the rest of the way.
"We're not out of this, by a long shot," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "Shoot, I've had my back to worse walls than this."
Perhaps. Will be tough for Washington to win and extend the season if it can't get its offense going, though.
The Nationals didn't do much at all Wednesday against Carpenter, who finds that even something as simple as breathing can feel odd on occasion now that he's missing a rib and two neck muscles.
Taking the mound for only the fourth time in 2012 after complicated surgery to cure numbness on his right side, the 37-year-old Carpenter spoiled the return of postseason baseball to Washington by pitching into the sixth inning.
"To go from not being able to compete, and not only compete but help your team, to be able to be in this situation," Carpenter said, "it's pretty cool."
Carpenter allowed seven hits and walked two across his 5 2-3 innings to improve to 10-2 over his career in the postseason. The 10 victories tie the righty for seventh-most, behind Andy Pettitte's record 19.
"If the baseball world doesn't know what an amazing competitor he is by now," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said, "they haven't been paying any attention."
Rookie Pete Kozma delivered a three-run homer, and a trio of relievers finished the shutout for the Cardinals.
With the exception of Ian Desmond — 3 for 4 on Wednesday, 7 for 12 in the series — the Nationals' hitters are struggling mightily. They went 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position and left 11 men on base in Game 3.
Rookie phenom Bryce Harper's woes, in particular, stand out: He went 0 for 5, dropping to 1 for 15. He went to the plate with an ash bat and no gloves in the first inning, tried wearing anti-glare tinted contact lenses on a sun-splashed afternoon — nothing helped.
"Nothing I can do," the 19-year-old Harper said. "I just missed a couple."
All in all, quite a damper on the day for a Nationals Park-record 45,017 red-wearing, towel-twirling fans witnessing the first major league postseason game in the nation's capital in 79 years. They didn't have much to enjoy, in part because of the problems created by Nationals starter Edwin Jackson, who was on the Cardinals' championship team a year ago.
"I didn't feel like I was out of rhythm. I didn't feel like I couldn't throw strikes. I just missed across the plate with a couple of balls and it cost me," Jackson said.
He gave up four consecutive hits in the second, the biggest being Kozma's first-pitch homer into the first row in left off a 94 mph fastball to make it 4-0. Kozma took over as the Cardinals' everyday shortstop in September, replacing injured All-Star Rafael Furcal, and only had 72 at-bats during the regular season.
But he's only the latest in a series of "Who's that?" stars that seem to pop up for his club, such as David Freese last autumn.
The Cardinals won 10 fewer games than the Nationals this season and finished second in the NL Central, nine games behind Cincinnati, sneaking into the postseason as the league's second wild-card under this year's new format.
The Cardinals learned to be resilient with their stretch run in 2011, also getting into the playoffs with the last NL berth.
"We saw how, if you just take it one game at a time, we're not looking at, 'Hey, we have got to win two out of three here in Washington.' We're looking at it: We have to win today," Lohse said. "We've done a good job of that — winning just about every game we absolutely had to. And I think when you start doing that, you realize you can do that. Your confidence goes up."
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