WASHINGTON—The St. Louis Cardinals eliminated the team with the best record in baseball in a division series en route to winning the 2011 World Series.
Their 2012 postseason is starting to look similar.
The defending champions can end the Washington Nationals’ amazing season Thursday in Game 4 in the nation’s capital.
St. Louis, which qualified for the 2011 playoffs on the final day of the regular season, surprised NL East champion Philadelphia in five games last year en route to a championship in Tony La Russa’s final season as manager. The Phillies led the majors with 102 wins.
This year’s Cardinals won the first-ever wild-card playoff game Friday in Atlanta. After dropping the opener of this series at home, they have won the last two and are again in position to advance.
“You just learn how to block out all that stuff and concentrate on the moment that you’re in right now and we have done a good job of that,” Game 4 starter Kyle Lohse said. “We look to continue doing that. (Manager) Mike Matheny has done a great job of continuing that thought process and keeping us focused on the here and now and not worry about future or what may happen.”
An offense that scored 765 runs in the regular season to lead all NL playoff teams has come up big for St. Louis against a Nationals pitching staff that led the league with a 3.33 ERA. The Cardinals have totaled 20 runs in their consecutive victories, winning 8-0 on Wednesday to spoil the first postseason game in Washington in 79 years.
“There’s a buzz all over this city,” Matheny said. “There’s a buzz inside the stadium. We just go out and play our game and try not to let that get in the way, whether there’s a lot of life or no life at all.”
Pete Kozma hit a three-run homer for a 4-0 lead in the second inning Wednesday and Matt Holliday finished with three hits and two RBIs. Carlos Beltran was the hitting star with two homers in Monday’s 12-4 victory.
The Nationals have seen Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson turn in subpar starts over the last two games and now will give St. Louis native Ross Detwiler his first career postseason start. Detwiler went 10-8 with a 3.40 ERA this year, although he dropped his final two outings by yielding 12 runs over 7 1-3 innings.
“Detwiler has certainly got the stuff to pitch a good game,” manager Davey Johnson insisted. “He’s pitched some quality games this year. So look forward to tomorrow.”
Detwiler’s last outing Sept. 30 was his shortest start of the year as he gave up seven runs - three earned - with five walks over 2 1-3 innings in a 10-4 loss to the Cardinals, also allowing a homer to Beltran. It was his first career appearance against St. Louis.
“I try not to remember that one, but I’m just really going out there trying to throw strikes, trying to get ahead in the count,” he said. “I think I had five or six walks and I think that’s what really ended up hurting me.”
That outing was in St. Louis, and Detwiler figures to be more confident Thursday since he went 7-2 with a 2.72 ERA in 14 home starts this year.
The left-hander will need some support from an offense that was blanked by Chris Carpenter and three relievers Wednesday. The only Nationals hitting consistently in this series are Ian Desmond (7 for 12) and Ryan Zimmerman (5 for 13).
Emblematic of Washington’s struggles at the plate is rookie center fielder Bryce Harper, who hopes to still be in the playoffs when he turns 20 next Tuesday. Harper is 1 for 15 with no walks and six strikeouts while Adam LaRoche is 1 for 11.
“It’s going to be tough to score if you don’t hit,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “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 Nationals will be up against a confident Lohse (1-0, 3.18 ERA), who exorcised some postseason demons from his past by yielding two runs over 5 2-3 innings to earn a 6-3 win over the Braves in the wild-card game Friday. Lohse had been 0-3 with a 7.13 ERA in his first four career playoff starts.
“You know, I came through the Atlanta game pretty successfully, and plan on being able to do the same thing from here on out,” Lohse said.
The veteran right-hander, though, posted a 6.94 ERA in two September starts against Washington. Harper and Zimmerman each went 3 for 6 against him in those games while LaRoche was 3 for 5 with a homer.