WASHINGTON -- Chris Carpenter was every bit the postseason ace he’s been in the past for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Taking the mound for only the fourth time in 2012, missing a rib after surgery to cure numbness on his right side, the 37-year-old Carpenter pitched scoreless ball into the sixth inning, rookie Pete Kozma delivered a three-run homer, and the defending champion Cardinals beat the Washington Nationals 8-0 Wednesday to take a 2-1 lead in their NL division series.
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.
Three relievers finished the shutout for the Cardinals, who can end the best-of-five series in Thursday’s Game 4 at Washington.
The Cardinals won 10 fewer games than the majors-best 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. But the Cardinals become a different bunch in the high-pressure playoffs - no matter that slugger Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa are no longer around.
Carpenter still is, even though even he didn’t expect to be pitching this year when he encountered problems during spring training and needed an operation in July to correct a nerve problem. The top rib on his right side was removed, along with connecting muscles.
He returned Sept. 21, going 0-2 in three starts totaling 17 innings, so it wasn’t clear how he’d fare Wednesday. Yeah, right. Carpenter allowed seven hits and walked two across his 5 2-3 innings to improve to 10-2 over his career in the postseason. That includes a 4-0 mark while helping another group of wild-card Cardinals take the title in the 2011 World Series, when he won Game 7 against Texas.
With the exception of Ian Desmond - 3 for 4 on Wednesday, 7 for 12 in the series - the Nationals’ hitters are struggling mightily. They’ve scored a total of seven runs in the playoffs and 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.
Carpenter was pretty good with a bat in his hands, collecting a pair of hits, including a double off the wall that was about a foot or two away from being a homer. When he reached second base, he raised his right fist.
Similarly, neither club could be sure which Edwin Jackson would show up for NL East champion Washington, a year after he was part of the Cardinals’ championship team: The one who struck out 10 and allowed one unearned run in eight innings against St. Louis on Aug. 30, or the one who lasted only 1 1-3 innings in a loss to the Cardinals on Sept. 28.
Much closer to the second version, it turned out, although he did recover from a rough start to retire eight of his last 10 batters Wednesday.
Not since the original Senators lost to the New York Giants in the 1933 World Series had big league baseball stretched past the regular season in Washington. Back then, of course, there was no MLB Network in HD to carry a game the way there was Wednesday; indeed, television itself was in its infancy, period. And spectators in attendance way back then could not enjoy a beer at the ballpark, because prohibition wasn’t repealed until a couple of months later.
With the Capitol Dome rising beyond left field, the crowd of today was ready to root, root, root for the home team, breaking into chants of “Let’s go, Nats!” after player introductions and again after a four-jet flyover. And, boy, did they boo - when Cardinals outfielder John Jay was announced as the game’s first batter, when catcher Yadier Molina trotted to chat with Carpenter, even when Carpenter paused between pitches to tie his red-and-gray right shoe.
Most of all, they booed when Washington’s Danny Espinosa was ruled out at first after bunting in the second. TV replays showed that Espinosa did beat third baseman David Freese’s throw, but the call was missed by Jim Joyce - an umpire best known for blowing a call at first base to ruin Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga’s bid for a perfect game in 2010.
Earlier, those boos were directed at Jackson.
The Cardinals opened the second inning with four consecutive hits, 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 of this postseason.
NOTES: Cardinals LF Matt Holliday fouled a ball off his left leg in the eighth, stayed in to deliver a two-run single, then left for a pinch runner. ... Frank Robinson, the first manager of the Washington Nationals, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Former Senators slugger Frank Howard will have that honor for Game 4. Robinson wore his old No. 20 - and so did the player crouching at home to catch the throw, Nationals shortstop Desmond, who switched from No. 6 to 20 before this season as a tribute to Robinson. The Hall of Famer won the Triple Crown as a player with the Orioles in 1966 -current Nationals manager Davey Johnson was a teammate - and said Wednesday “there is no doubt” Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera should be the AL MVP over Los Angeles’ Mike Trout season after leading the league in average, homers and RBIs this season. ... Lohse got the win when the Cardinals beat the Braves in the wild-card game. ... Detwiler will be making the first postseason appearance of his career. His last regular-season start also came against the Cardinals, and he went only 2 1-3 innings, giving up seven runs. Asked what he takes away from that game, Detwiler replied: “I try not to remember that one.” ... Wednesday was the 88th anniversary of Washington’s only World Series championship, won by the Senators on Oct. 10, 1924.