ST. LOUIS (AP) — The St. Louis Cardinals had the right guys up and were ready to break open their playoff opener against the Washington Nationals.
Three pitches later, the course of Game 1 had changed. And soon, the defending World Series champion Cardinals had let their big chance slip away in a 3-2 loss Sunday.
The Cardinals led 2-1 in the seventh inning and were poised to get more with the bases loaded and nobody out. Cleanup hitter Allen Craig, who led the National League with a .400 average with runners in scoring position, was up and MVP candidate Yadier Molina was on deck.
But reliever Ryan Mattheus needed just two pitches to get out of the jam. Craig grounded into a forceout at the plate, then Molina bounced into an easy double play.
And on the first pitch of the eighth, Cardinals rookie shortstop Pete Kozma misplayed Michael Morse's grounder. Ian Desmond followed that error with a hit and, two outs later, pinch hitter Tyler Moore slapped a two-strike single to right for a two-run single.
"It's baseball," Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday said. "They got a guy who throws groundballs and he came in and got two of them. You've got two of the best hitters in the league coming up. It just didn't work out."
The Nationals, who had never come close to making the playoffs since moving from Montreal for the 2005 season, overcame a wild outing by 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez to start the NL division series.
Mattheus got the win for his two-pitch, three-out seventh, and Drew Storen pitched a perfect ninth for the save. Mitchell Boggs, victimized by Kozma's error in the eighth, took the loss.
The NL East champion Nationals led the majors with 98 wins this season, and brought postseason baseball to Washington for the first time since 1933. The Nats go for a 2-0 series lead Monday when Jordan Zimmermann opposes Jaime Garcia.
"This team is not hanging our heads," St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright said. "We can come back and win this easily."
The Cardinals made it to the best-of-five division series by beating Atlanta in the wild-card matchup Friday. But St. Louis wasted a 10-strikeout gem by Wainwright, failing to capitalize enough on Gonzalez's career high-tying seven walks and frustrating its towel-waving fans.
A standing room crowd of 47,078, among the largest at 7-year-old Busch Stadium, bundled up for a game that began in 54-degree chill and featured kaleidoscope late-afternoon shadows that bedeviled hitters for several innings.