Nationals searching for answers to NLDS dry spell

Nationals starter Edwin Jackson pitches to the Cardinals during Game 3 of their NLDS series at...

Nationals starter Edwin Jackson pitches to the Cardinals during Game 3 of their NLDS series at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., Oct. 10, 2012. (GARY CAMERON/Reuters)

MIKE RUTSEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:31 PM ET

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The stunned look on the faces of the Washington Nationals told the story.

In facing the St. Louis Cardinals, the defending World Series champs in the first post-season series of this Washington franchise, the Nats knew they would be in for a challenge even though they finished the season with a Major-League best 98 victories.

In the past two games, though, the Nationals have not only lost, they’ve been embarrassed. They have been out-pitched and out-hit and out-scored by a 20-4 margin.

First baseman Adam LaRoche is one of the few veterans in the lineup but he doesn’t have any answers for the dismal performance of his team the past two days.

“I think this time of year I can’t say it’s always the best team that moves on, a lot of times it’s the hottest,” LaRoche said of what the Cardinals have achieved. “You get on a roll and get everybody hot going into the post-season and you end up putting up a lot of runs. We hit a little cold spell here and it came at the wrong time.”

It sounded, oddly enough, like a concession speech, and given the way the Nats have performed in the consecutive spankings, it’s hard to see how they will rebound against the experienced, confident Cardinals.

“It’s just not happening right now,” shortstop Ian Desmond said of Washington’s lack of production. “I think it’s just the simple fact that we’re 1-2. I don’t think it matters how many runs we’ve given up and things like that. We’re 1-2. It’s a five-game series and we’ve got a game tomorrow. Hopefully we shift the numbers a little bit.”

Could it be the inexperience of the Nats, their lack of post-season play?

“I think it could be,” LaRoche said. “When you’re down a few runs you want to drive some in. I think you can get a little anxious then and try to take more than they give you. Later in the game, that is probably the case, guys trying to do a little extra to spark something.”

Complicating their problem is the fact the Nats haven’t been in this position before, they haven’t had a must-win game this season.

“We don’t have a choice now,” LaRoche said. “We put ourselves in this spot. It’s not something that we planned on but it is what it is. We need to go out from the first pitch and be aggressive. We know that they are. It’s (St. Louis), not a bunt and hit-and-run team. Those guys are trying to do some damage. We need to fire right back and do the same thing.”

Is it any harder for young team to relax, especially given what they face Thursday?

“I would hope not,” LaRoche replied. “I think we have guys in here who are level-headed enough to understand that the best way for us to have a chance is to keep everybody relaxed and go play and still have fun and understand that, even though it’s a must win, it’s still a game and we’ve been real successful having fun all summer playing so I don’t see why this should be any different.”

But it is. It’s all the difference in the world, and in the past two games the Nats haven’t figured that out.

CARDS WIN (IN PART) DUE TO KOZMA

Pete Kozma always seems to be in the middle of the action.

The St. Louis Cardinals shortstop is on the team because of an elbow injury that knocked out Rafael Furcal for the season and in the playoffs the rookie has been impossible to overlook.

In the wild-card game against the Atlanta Braves, it was Kozma who backed away from the eighth-inning popup that dropped in behind him and almost caused a riot.

Then in the first game of this division series against Washington, it was his fielding error in the eighth inning that opened the door to the Nationals' two-run rally in their 3-2 victory.

On Wednesday, Kozma was front and centre again, but this time in a positive manner for the Cardinals as it was his three-run homer in the second inning that set the Nats back on their heels.

"He has played great," left fielder Matt Holliday said of his shortstop. "That was a big home run. Obviously a three-run home run any time in the playoffs, particularly early on when you've got (Chris) Carpenter pitching. He has come up with a lot of big hits. He has played great."

Manager Mike Matheny agreed

"Pete Kozma has been huge," he said. "We had a huge void when we lost Rafael Furcal.

"We put him in there, gave him the opportunity and he absolutely ran away with it."

Kozma wasn't looking home run but said he would take it.

"We had a runner on third (and first), less than two outs so I was just looking for first pitch in the zone, put it out in the outfield."

Added Carpenter: "Went over the fence."


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