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Nats' bullpen shows its stuff in win over Cards

Nats' bullpen shows its stuff in win over Cards

Nats' bullpen shows its stuff in win over Cards
ST. LOUIS -- The call came in the seventh inning, with the bases loaded and no outs. In the most difficult situation a reliever can face, Ryan Mattheus was going to make his postseason debut.

It may have been shorter than Mattheus anticipated, but it was more successful than even he could have dreamed. The right-hander threw two 94-mph fastballs, generated two ground balls with them and recorded three outs. Moments later, the Nationals rallied to win Sunday's National League Division Series Game 1 over the Cardinals, 3-2, largely on the strength of their shutdown bullpen.

"I wasn't nervous," Mattheus said. "I've been in these games. I don't think any of us are nervous. We're more anxious and ready to face the best."

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The best came knocking fiercely in the seventh, with the defending World Series champions already leading by a run. In his second inning of relief of starter Gio Gonzalez, who could not last past the fifth, Craig Stammen loaded the bases on Adam LaRoche's fielding error, a clean single and a hit batsman.

Knowing the right-handed heart of St. Louis' order was due up next, Nationals manager Davey Johnson turned to Mattheus, who admitted that "you can't really prepare for these situations."

"That," he said afterward, "was the biggest situation I've ever pitched in."

It quickly became the most efficient outing in postseason history. Mattheus opened with a sinking fastball down in the zone, which Allen Craig grounded to shortstop. There, Ian Desmond gloved it and fired home for the forceout.

The next batter, Yadier Molina, bounced another fastball to third base, where Ryan Zimmerman started an inning-ending double play. And just like that, Mattheus became the first pitcher ever to record three outs on two pitches in the playoffs.

"They brought in a very good ground-ball pitcher, a guy who we knew has a record of getting the ground ball," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We needed a couple runs in, but they pitched their way out of it."

The Nationals seemed to have a knack of doing that Sunday, as they did throughout the regular season. Mattheus was a significant reason why the Nats ranked third in the NL with a 3.23 bullpen ERA, leaning on that bunch for more outs than all but one other Senior Circuit team.

Both trends continued Sunday, when Gonzalez's early exit forced Johnson to coax four innings out of his 'pen. Stammen, Mattheus, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen responded as they so often do, with the latter three pitchers combining for three perfect innings at the end of the game.

"I don't really know how we won that game, to be honest," Stammen said. "[Mattheus] saved my tail bone pretty good."

No matter how they did it, they did it, and the legend of Washington's relief pitchers grew. As Gonzalez exited the visitors' clubhouse early Sunday evening, a group of Nationals friends and family members greeted him with shouts of congratulations.

"What a battle, guys," were Gonzalez's first words as he accepted handshakes and hugs from the crowd. "This bullpen is unbelievable."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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