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.
|St. Louis Cardinals|
|October 08, 2012||Jaime Garcia||Day-to-Day||Left rotator strain and inflammation|
|September 28, 2012||David Freese||Day-to-Day||Sprained right ankle|
|September 28, 2012||Matt Holliday||Day-to-Day||Left game - left elbow contusion|
|September 23, 2012||Yadier Molina||Day-to-Day||Lower back spasms|
|September 09, 2012||David Freese||Day-to-Day||Swollen left ankle|
|September 09, 2012||Matt Carpenter||Day-to-Day||Cut hand|
|September 12, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Torn cuff and bone bruise in left wrist|
|September 03, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Left game - sore right thumb|
|September 02, 2012||Jayson Werth||Day-to-Day||Sore hamstring|
|August 24, 2012||Ian Desmond||Day-to-Day||Strained right hamstring|
|August 24, 2012||Michael Morse||Day-to-Day||Left game - right hand contusion|
|August 13, 2012||Jayson Werth||Day-to-Day||Sore right ankle|
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Joyous, bouncing teammates waiting to greet him at home, the red-clad crowd raucous as can be, Jayson Werth yanked off his red batting helmet with two hands and thrust it a dozen or more feet overhead.
A little less than two years ago, the Washington Nationals showered Werth with millions, persuading him to come show them how to win. On Thursday night, with one swing of his black bat, Werth delivered a game-ending homer to extend his club's surprising season and wipe away whatever disappointments marred his days in D.C.
Werth led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a 13-pitch at-bat against reliever Lance Lynn that ended with the ball landing beyond the wall in left field, giving the Nationals a tense 2-1 victory over the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and forcing a deciding Game 5 in their NL division series.
"That's the way that game should have ended: Jayson Werth hitting a home run," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He has not hit that many this year. ... Unbelievable. Great effort on his part."
The best-of-five series will end Friday night in Washington, with the winner advancing to face the San Francisco Giants in the NL championship series. The starters will provide a rematch of Game 1, which Washington won, with Gio Gonzalez on the mound for the NL East champion Nationals, and Adam Wainwright for the wild-card Cardinals.
"It's what you play all season for, and what you work out all winter for, and what you get to spring training early for," Werth said. "We have a chance tomorrow to take that next step. I know my teammates will be ready. And the city will, too."
The homer was Werth's first of the series, the 14th of his postseason career. He won the 2008 World Series and a string of division titles with the Philadelphia Phillies , then moved to Washington before last season as a free agent on a $126 million, seven-year contract that stunned much of baseball.
He managed to hit only five homers and 31 RBIs in 2012, missing 75 games because of a broken left wrist. Last year, his first in Washington, Werth hit only .232 with 58 RBIs, and there was grumbling about his worth.
That vanished at dusk Thursday, when Werth circled the bases, raising his right index finger in a "No. 1" gesture, while the announced attendance of 44,392 roared, and the other Nationals raced out of their dugout to greet him.
"I'm just happy that these fans got to see it, because obviously he had a rough year last year, and he got hurt this year, and I don't think the fans realize how good of a player Jason is," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "For him to have a moment like this in front of the home fans, and in front of this atmosphere, I couldn't be happier for him. He deserves it."
Werth's arrival certainly coincided with a quick turnaround: The Nationals lost 100 games in 2008 and 2009, but led the majors with 98 wins this year.
"When I signed here, my first day here, I went to a Capitals game, a hockey game, (and) the place was packed. Somebody said, `Just a few short years ago, this place was empty.' So I knew that a winning ballclub would bring the fans," Werth said, "and here we are, two years later, and they're showing up and it's awesome."
Werth's shot provided a sudden end to a classic postseason contest filled with tremendous pitching. Each team managed only three hits.
Lynn, usually a starter for St. Louis but a reliever in these playoffs, was making his third appearance of this series.
"Heater. He beat me," Lynn said, then paused before continuing. "I've had success this series with him, and, you know, everyone in the stadium knew what I was throwing there."
"It was just a matter of time," Lynn added. "I was challenging him, and he was up for it."
The righty was the Cardinals' third pitcher - facing only one batter - and manager Mike Matheny was asked afterward why he didn't use closer Jason Motte .
"If we were at home, it would have been a very easy decision to bring in Motte," Matheny said, explaining that if he used up his closer and St. Louis went ahead later in the game, a reliever not used to getting a save would have needed to try.
"Had a lot of confidence in Lance. He came in throwing the ball well," Matheny added. "Werth just put together a very good at-bat."
Cardinals batters decidedly did not down the stretch. They made eight consecutive outs via strikeouts against three Nationals pitchers - Jordan Zimmermann , Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen , who threw the top of the ninth and got the win. Zimmermann was making the first relief appearance of his career.
"All of them were throwing harder than I've seen them throw," Johnson said.
Storen walked No. 8 hitter Pete Kozma with two outs, before getting pinch hitter Matt Carpenter out on a twisting, stumbling overhead catch by shortstop Ian Desmond , who wound up sliding on his belly in short left field. When Desmond rose, he threw the ball into the stands and yelled.
Moments later, Werth had all the towel-twirling spectators yelling, too, thanks to the way he turned on a 96 mph fastball. For much of the game, the hometown fans were rather quiet, perhaps dreading a sooner-than-expected end to their team's better-than-expected year.
Starters Kyle Lohse , who won the wild-card playoff game for St. Louis against Atlanta last week, and Ross Detwiler were both superb. Lohse lasted seven innings, allowing one run and two hits. Detwiler went six, with one unearned run and three hits all he conceded, and called Werth's homer, "One of the best moments of my life."
Lohse was replaced by Mitchell Boggs , who struck out pinch hitter Chad Tracy with a man on to end the eighth, before giving way to Lynn.
While nearly to a man - except, naturally, for Werth - the young Nationals are new to this sort of thing, the Cardinals have quite the postseason pedigree: Over the past two years, St. Louis is 5-0 in games where it faces elimination, including must-have victories in Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers .
"We got a lot of experience, a lot of confidence built. Just going to the World Series and winning the World Series, having to play a Game 7 and come out on top - you're seeing a lot of us use that experience so far in this postseason," St. Louis first baseman Allen Craig said.
Washington entered Game 4 with all sorts of problems at the plate in the series: 3 for 24 with runners in scoring position, 30 men left on base, a total of only seven runs. Despite those struggles, Johnson didn't make any changes at all to his lineup.
As it turned out, the Nationals didn't have an at-bat with anyone in scoring position all game. Both runs came on solo shots.
Cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche put Washington ahead 1-0 in the second, and the Cardinals tied it in the next inning without a hit. Detwiler walked Kozma - a rookie Johnson referred to as "Cosmos" before the game - and after a sacrifice bunt, Jon Jay reached on an error when Desmond booted a grounder. Carlos Beltran 's sac fly scored Kozma.
No more scoring until the ninth, when Werth ended things.
A night earlier, Werth watched on TV as Raul Ibanez - his former Phillies teammate, now with the Yankees - pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth and homered to tie an ALDS game against the Orioles, then went deep again in the 12th to win it. He traded texts with his buddy Ibanez.
Werth also tuned in to see Oakland rally to beat Detroit on Wednesday after trailing entering the ninth.
"Baseball, this time of year, is the best time for sports. I love October baseball," Werth said. "Here we are a day later, and I got an opportunity and came through."
Which means Werth - and the Nationals - get to keep playing.
NOTES: Nationals rookie Bryce Harper was hitless in three at-bats, leaving him 1 for 18 in the series. ... In Game 3 on Wednesday, Cardinals RHP Chris Carpenter became only the second starting pitcher in baseball history to win a postseason game after not having any wins during the regular season, according to STATS LLC.
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