Washington Nationals exhibiting Max-imum effort

ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 12: Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning of Game 2 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium on Saturday, October 12, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 12: Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning of Game 2 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium on Saturday, October 12, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /
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Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer reprises Anibal Sanchez’s Friday performance, leads Nats to a 2-0 NLCS lead over the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Washington Nationals hold a 2-0 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series for one reason: starting pitching.

On Saturday, as was the case a night earlier, the Nationals starter – in this instance Max Scherzer – treated the Cardinal lineup like high schoolers. Scherzer no-hit the Cardinals into the seventh inning and eventually emerged with a 3-1 victory.

Here’s a look back at a half dozen key moments of Saturday’s pitching-driven ballgame.

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Third inning. From the start, this was a battle of veteran aces: Scherzer vs. Cardinal star Adam Wainwright. Through two innings neither pitcher had given up anything more profound than Anthony Rendon’s two-out first-inning base hit. But in the top of the third, Wainwright tried to run a cutter in on the fists of Michael A. Taylor, a reserve who is only playing due to regular Victor Robles’ sore ankle. He missed out over the plate.

Taylor is no power threat, as should be clear from the single home run he hit during the regular season. But he knows how to treat a high cutter; with malice. It left the bat at 106.2 mph, flew 377 feet and landed in a spectator’s lap in the left-field seats.

Fourth inning.  Taylor’s home run put the Nats in front, but it might not have stood up for long had it not been for Howie Kendrick. Leading off the fourth, Kolten Wong sent a screeching ground ball scurrying for center field only to have Kendrick intercept it, wheel and throw Wong out at first. With the heart of the Cardinal order – Paul Goldschmidt and Marcel Ozuna – set to follow, Kendrick’s play blunted any prospect of an emerging Cardinal threat.

All week. Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer’s no-hit performance through six innings merely continued a string of incompetence on the part of Cardinal batters that may be unprecedented in post-season play. Until Goldschmidt led off the seventh inning with a base hit, the nine Cardinal regulars had been held hitless through 64 consecutive at-bats, that string dating back to  Goldschmidt’s fourth-inning single against the Atlanta Braves in the final NLDS game in Atlanta last  Wednesday.

That’s a bit more than two full games without a single hit by any Cardinal starter.

Seventh inning. Goldschmidt’s single came at a moment when his team trailed just 1-0 and presented Cardinal manager Mike Shildt one of his few opportunities to influence the game’s outcome by moving a baserunner. Shildt’s problem was that the next hitter, Ozuna, was both his only moderately hot post-season batter and also a terrible sacrifice or hit-and-run option.

That reduced Shildt to spectator status while Ozuna took upon himself the task of making something happen against Scherzer.  It was a full no-go. Ozuna swung through a very hittable fastball, fouled off a slider at his knees, fished for and spoiled a low-outside fastball, then fanned on a slider in the dirt.

That left matters in the hands of Yadier Molina, who delivered the worst possible outcome off the bat of the league’s slowest player: a sure double-play grounder. The Nats infield easily turned it.

Eighth inning. Shildt really faced only one more vital decision; he made it and it blew up on him. After Washington Nationals pinch hitter Matt Adams and Trea Turner singled in the eighth, left-handed batter Adam Eaton came to the plate facing Wainwright with one out. Shildt had left-hander Andrew Miller warmed up in the bullpen, but he elected to stay with Wainwright.

There’s no telling, of course, what might have happened had Miller come in to face Eaton but we do know what did happen. Eaton roped a double into right field that scored Adams and Turner with what would eventually become the two winning runs.

Eighth inning. Scherzer’s mound dominance made Nats manager Dave Martinez’s job relatively easy compared with Shildt. But Martinez did have to make one tough call, and as with Shildt, it backfired on him.

After Adams pinch hit for Scherzer in the eighth, Martinez summoned left-hander Sean Doolittle to pitch the bottom of the inning. Let the record show that Doolittle had recorded the save on Friday, but let it also show that he expended 16 pitches in doing so.

Doolittle retired the first two batters he faced, but then Paul DeJong sent a line drive base hit into left field.  That put  Doolittle’s pitch count at 25 since Friday and left Martinez with no small quandary. He could stay with Doolittle in the hope of retiring ace Cardinal pinch hitter Jose Martinez, or he could lift him in favor of closer Daniel Hudson.

The problem with staying with Doolittle was that he is a left-hander facing an expert right-handed pinch hitter. The problem with bringing in Hudson was two-fold: He would have to get a four-out save, and he was coming off paternity leave – and doubtless a restless night – following the birth of his third child Friday.

Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez stayed with Doolittle, who Carlos Martinez subjected to a 10-pitch inquisition before doubling to score DeJong. Now facing the exact same situation again, this time with Dexter Fowler representing the potential tying run at the plate, Dave Martinez again stayed with Doolittle. ..and got a tension-easing first-pitch fly out to right.

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Hudson, with a first batter, assist from Patrick Corbin ended the game without incident in the ninth.