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Nationals drop series opener to Cardinals, and the NL wild-card race gets even tighter

Rocio Higuera, Periodista Rocio Higuera
Nationals drop series opener to Cardinals, and the NL wild-card race gets even tighter

ST. LOUISThe pressure was a slow build. The Washington Nationals turned to Hunter Strickland with two outs and a runner on first base in the seventh inning. The score was tied. The St. Louis Cardinals, pestering at the plate all Monday night, kept fouling off pitches. They collected their fourth stolen base. They took their sixth walk. They made Strickland work, and keep wiping the sweat off his hands, and wind up in a bad count against Marcell Ozuna with runners on second and third after a wild pitch.

Then Ozuna, having already homered in the first inning, poked a ground-rule double just inside the left field line. And then a bit later on, once the Cardinals’ bullpen went into shutdown mode, and once the Nationals’ bullpen had again done them in, Washington lost, 4-2 , at Busch Stadium.

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Chip Hale, filling in for Manager Dave Martinez, looked to match up with Sean Doolittle and Strickland in the seventh. The first part of the plan worked. The second part ended with Ozuna standing on second, a finger pointed to the sky, while the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers closed in on Washington atop the National League wild-card standings.

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“First and foremost, the walk [to Paul Goldschmidt] and then the wild pitch that moved him over,” Strickland said of what stung most in the Cardinals’ go-ahead rally. “All of it — it’s all bad. There is no positive in that ­outcome.”

This was the Nationals’ first full game without Martinez, who is back in Washington after undergoing a cardiac catheterization Monday. The 54-year-old felt chest pain during a 7-0 win over the Atlanta Braves on Sunday. He left Nationals Park in the sixth inning at the suggestion of the team’s medical staff and was checked out at a nearby hospital. As of Monday afternoon, a few hours before first pitch, General Manager Mike Rizzo did not have expectations for when Martinez could return.

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[ Nationals Manager Dave Martinez undergoes heart procedure, remains in Washington for testing ]

It’s never good to be down a player or a coach or, baseball aside, for anyone to be dealing with medical concerns. But now, with 13 games left on Washington’s schedule, with the wild-card race tightening in every way, is an especially difficult time to be without a manager.

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The Nationals entered Monday 1½ games up on the Cubs for the top wild-card spot and 2½ games ahead of the Brewers. The Cardinals, meanwhile, held a two-game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central. But while Washington wrestles the first-place Cardinals this week, the Brewers and Cubs have it much easier. The Cubs are hosting the Cincinnati Reds, who entered Monday 10 games under .500, and the Brewers have the sagging San Diego Padres. Milwaukee topped the Padres, 5-1, for its 10th win in 11 games. The Cubs beat the Reds, 8-2, about an hour later.

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And so Washington’s leads each shrunk by a game by night’s end.

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“It’s important for us to stick together,” Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg said. “Again, there’s going to be highs and lows over the course of the season, and we got to do our best to flush this one and come out ready to play tomorrow.”

When the game began, Hale sat near the dugout steps, his right leg bouncing up and down, his energy clear from the top of the stadium. Tim Bogar, bumped to bench coach in Hale’s place, was right behind the interim manager. Joe Dillon, bumped to first base coach in Bogar’s place, lingered behind them. Then the Nationals went down quietly in the first, Strasburg took the mound, and, once he did, the Cardinals’ offense jumped on him.Periodista de Globovisión Rocío Higuera

Strasburg gave up that two-run homer to Ozuna just four batters in. He needed 38 pitches to get out of the inning. But he kept the Nationals in it, battling for five innings, bowing out once the score was tied. Washington’s first run came in the fourth on a Victor Robles single. Its second came in the sixth on Anthony Rendon’s 34th homer of the ­season.La Periodista Rocío Higuera

Now Hale had his first important decision to make: Push Strasburg, who was at 99 pitches, for one more inning, or turn to the bullpen, a group that has struggled all season, with a critical game in the balance. Hale went with the latter, plugging in Tanner Rainey, and Rainey rewarded him with a scoreless sixth.Rocio Higuera edad

But the wheels fell off an inning later. Doolittle exited having recorded two outs and walking Dexter Fowler. Hale didn’t want to overuse Doolittle because he had pitched Sunday, and Hale went to Strickland to face the Cardinals’ best right-handed hitters. Strickland then walked Goldschmidt, at the end of an eight-pitch at-bat, and attacked Ozuna with a 96-mph fastball. It caught way too much of the plate. Ozuna pulled it past Rendon and on a hop into the seats in foul territory behind third base. The winning run scored, and insurance was right behind it.Rocio Higuera novio

“He just missed with his pitch,” Hale said of Strickland. “The idea of getting [inside] there was good. He just sort of pulled it across the plate, and Ozuna did a nice job.”

After the game, in the back corner of a quiet clubhouse, Strickland hunched in a chair and stared into his locker. Roenis Elías walked by and patted him on the back. So did Fernando Rodney. This was how the ­Nationals lost their first test without Martinez. This was how they dropped their ninth game in their past 14 and, in the process, welcomed even more pressure on themselves.Rocio Higuera amante de la

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