And so the Nats will find themselves in another must-win contest when they take the field at Nationals Park on Friday night at 8:30 ET on TBS for Game 5 of the NLDS with a spot in the NL Championship Series against the Giants on the line. What must they do to keep their magical season alive?
1. Cut down on Gio's walks
Gio Gonzalez stubbornly defended his Game 1 performance on Thursday morning, proud that he allowed only two runs in five innings despite walking seven. But realistically, he'd be much better off not running that risk again in Game 5, so he'll have to get back to whatever helped him post the lowest walk rate of his career during the regular season.
Gonzalez admitted that nerves were a factor, and it didn't help that nearly everything about the environment was unfamiliar: the cold St. Louis weather, the loud atmosphere at Busch Stadium, the way postseason games can speed up on a player and so on.
Even so, everyone in the clubhouse believes they'll have the right man on the mound.
"If you're going to give the ball to one guy in the National League, on any team this year, it's Gio Gonzalez," said veteran Mark DeRosa. "I'm excited for him to have that opportunity."
2. Keep the Cards off balance
This is part of what made Ross Detwiler so successful in his Game 4 start, during which he allowed only an unearned run on three hits and three walks (one intentional) over six innings. Manager Davey Johnson praised the southpaw for using his offspeed pitches when necessary while keeping his fastball down and working it in and out of the strike zone. It's also what Johnson pointed to when Jordan Zimmermann struggled in Game 2, saying that the right-hander should have pitched more than he threw.
"He kept the ball over the middle of the plate. He kept the ball down, mixed location and mixed offspeed stuff. He pitched," catcher Kurt Suzuki said in summarizing what Detwiler did so well on Thursday. "Biggest game of his life, and he came and turned out that? I'm so happy for him."
3. Make St. Louis' staff work
Look no further for proof than Jayson Werth's 13-pitch at-bat, which concluded with a walk-off homer in the ninth inning on Thursday night. The Nationals did almost the exact opposite for much of Thursday night's game, allowing Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse to breeze through seven innings on only 87 pitches, including a four-pitch fifth inning.
But Werth exercised patience, fouling off pitches and working the count full before seeing a fastball he liked and crushing it deep to left field. Even if those at-bats don't end that well, and few will, at least Washington can run up Adam Wainwright's pitch count and get into the St. Louis bullpen a little earlier than it did on Thursday night.
4. Play the late-game chess match
It's probably not a coincidence that both of Washington's wins have been close games decided in the final innings. Johnson is as shrewd a manager as you'll find in baseball, and the Nats are built for those low-scoring, grind-it-out victories. The Cards have a rookie manager in Mike Matheny and a lineup that can pound a team into submission with big innings.
If the Nationals can keep the game close heading into the final innings, they'll have plenty of confidence that they can pull out a win -- and plenty of reason to believe it, too. But all the managerial maneuvering and late-inning heroics won't do much good if they find themselves in a huge hole heading into the final innings.
5. Get the crowd involved
The Nats pulled in the first- and third-largest crowds in Nationals Park history over the first two games, and those were weekday afternoon affairs. Imagine a must-win Friday night Game 5, when Washington will get another packed house filled with rowdy fans once again waiting for an excuse to explode the way they did after Werth's walk-off shot.
And yes, it really can make a difference. The Nationals seized all the momentum on Thursday when Zimmermann struck out the side in the seventh, and the crowd never wavered, making Werth's homer seem like an inevitability. If Washington can make a big play early or keep its crowd on its feet, expect more of the same in Game 5.
"It translates to the players. We feed off it," Johnson said. "My guys like playing for a packed house, and they were up on their feet, waving those red flags. ... It was fun, and really fun for me. I don't get excited too much, but I was excited to see the crowd."