ST. LOUIS (AP) — Given zero wriggle room, Nationals reliever Ryan Mattheus had realistic expectations. Entering with the bases loaded, nobody out and the cleanup man coming to the plate in the seventh inning, it was all about not letting the game get out of hand.
"I'm thinking minimize the damage," Mattheus said. "No big inning here."
He needed just two pitches to diffuse the crisis and keep it close for a deciding rally in Washington's 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in a division series opener on Sunday. Allen Craig, who batted an NL-leading .400 with runners in scoring position, grounded into a force at the plate and Yadier Molina bounced into an easy double play.
"It was a big moment," said Mattheus, who gave a big fist pump before walking off the mound. "It gave us life. The guys said, 'Hey, we can win this ballgame."
Rookie pinch-hitter Tyler Moore's big moment came just a few minutes later. Moore, who had two of the Nationals' three pinch homers, looped a two-out, two-run single off Marc Rzepczynski for the go-ahead hit.
There are just four players with postseason experience on the roster, but the Nationals led the National League with 98 wins. It's a huge step for a franchise that hadn't even come close to making the postseason since moving from Montreal in 2005, and brought postseason baseball to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933.
Washington overcame a wild start by 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez, who matched his career worst with seven walks. Five pitchers combined on a three-hitter against the Cardinals, who made it to the best-of-five division series by beating the Braves in a one-game playoff.
Tyler Clippard skirted an error in the eighth and Drew Storen got the save with a 1-2-3 ninth against the top of the order.
"Being able to grind out a win in this place, that's huge," rookie center fielder Bryce Harper said. "Our bullpen came in and threw awesome."
The NL East champions go for a 2-0 series lead Monday when Jordan Zimmerman, whose 2.92 ERA ranked among the league leaders, faces Jaime Garcia, whose career 2.48 ERA is the best among major league starters at 7-year-old Busch Stadium.
"We just lost a game," said third baseman David Freese, the MVP of the NLCS and World Series last fall. "We're going to wake up tomorrow ready to go."
The Cardinals wasted a 10-strikeout gem by Adam Wainwright, failing to capitalize enough on Gonzalez's career high-tying seven walks and frustrating their towel-waving fans.
"He's the best non-knuckleballer in the league," Freese said of Gonzalez, in a nod to the Mets' R.A. Dickey. "He's nasty."
A standing room crowd of 47,078, among the largest at 7-year-old Busch Stadium, bundled up for a game that began in a 54-degree chill and featured kaleidoscope late-afternoon shadows that bedeviled hitters for several innings.
Rookie shortstop Pete Kozma misplayed Michael Morse's grounder for an error to open the eighth and set up the Nationals' go-ahead rally. Desmond followed with a single off Mitchell Boggs, putting runners at the corners.