ST. LOUIS -- So much went wrong for the Nationals in their first postseason game Sunday afternoon, it was hard to believe they still had a chance when rookie Tyler Moore strode to the plate with two outs in the eighth inning.
Gio Gonzalez had walked seven batters and was lucky to allow only two runs over five innings. Jayson Werth came up short in two potentially huge moments, leaving the bases loaded twice with a chance to dramatically shift the momentum in Washington's favor. The rest of the Nationals' lineup hadn't fared much better against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, striking out 10 times in 5 2/3 innings.
But up came Moore, pinch-hitting against lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski with runners at second and third. Moore worked a 2-2 count and dropped a two-run single into right field, pushing Washington to a 3-2 win in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium.
"I'm a blessed man. It's pretty unbelievable," Moore said. "I'm just happy for us as a team to get this first one out of the way."
"To make it through our first postseason game with a win is crucial," Werth added. "A lot of times you see teams in their first game, the first time they're there, and they crack or buckle. I feel like we definitely gave a little bit, but we didn't break."
For all the talk about postseason experience leading up to this series, and the Nationals' utter refusal that it mattered, it seemed somehow fitting that it was Moore who came through with the biggest hit in the club's first postseason victory. Most of Washington's biggest contributors, in fact, were going through their first time in such a big moment -- from Ian Desmond's three-hit game to reliever Ryan Mattheus' unbelievable two-pitch, three-out performance that kept the Nats within striking distance.
"That's playoff baseball. Nothing goes to plan in the playoffs," closer Drew Storen said. "The good teams are the ones that can handle it and really grind it out and get the victory. That's what we expect. We don't expect it to go by the book."
Indeed, Moore only found himself in that situation after a well-timed error by Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma, a big hit from Desmond that sent Michael Morse to third base, and a bit of strategic maneuvering by both managers.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson originally called on Chad Tracy to pinch-hit against right-hander Mitchell Boggs in the pitcher's spot, but Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny went to Rzepczynski, his lone lefty. Johnson countered with the right-handed-hitting Moore, who knew he would get a chance against a left-hander.
Moore had been talking to veteran Mark DeRosa in the dugout, preparing for a possible at-bat against Rzepczynski. With the full confidence of Johnson and a little advice from DeRosa, the rookie stepped up to the moment and delivered.
"It was overwhelming. I got chills out there. It was great because 50,000 [fans], and you couldn't hear anything," Moore said. "It was great. All of a sudden, I see my teammates jumping up and down. They can't control themselves. It was great."
"He's been up here and he's been in some big situations, and he's gotten some big hits for us. I don't think anyone here really thinks he's a rookie anymore," added third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "I hope he doesn't either. He's done it all year. ... There's one thing we're all sure about: He can hit. And he'll always be able to hit. We're lucky to have a guy like that on our bench."
Aside from Werth's leaping catch to rob Daniel Descalso of a home run in the sixth inning, that eighth-inning rally was just about all that went right for the Nationals.
Gonzalez, the South Florida native making his first postseason start in chilly St. Louis, ran into a mess in the second inning. He walked four of the first five batters he faced and gave up two runs, one on a wild pitch that flew all the way to the backstop, and another on a hard-hit sacrifice fly to left by Jon Jay.
Gonzalez fell behind every Cardinals hitter he faced early on, not throwing a first-pitch strike until the 11th batter of the game, but managed to grind through five innings without letting the game get out of hand. That became the 21-game winner's only goal after the second inning, and he accomplished it.
"We had an opportunity to win this one, and it didn't happen," Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran said.
But as fortunate as Gonzalez felt to minimize the damage, Wainwright was simply dominant, using the shadows to his advantage as he spun a practically unhittable curveball, registering nine of his 10 strikeouts with the pitch. Washington's only run off Wainwright came in the second inning, scoring the first run in Nationals postseason history on Kurt Suzuki's RBI single before Gonzalez surrendered the lead in the bottom half of the inning.
But Gonzalez pitched well enough to hold the line, as did Craig Stammen, Mattheus, Tyler Clippard and Storen. All the Nats needed was a rally, and they got one in the eighth, capped off by a big pinch-hit from a rookie who only had 156 at-bats in the Majors, none of them in the playoffs.
And when Moore's hit landed on the grass in right field, nothing that had gone wrong really mattered anymore.
"I don't really know how we won that game, to be honest," Stammen said. "But we pulled it out somehow, and that's kind of how the playoffs goes."