Ryan Mattheus played the part of magician in getting the Nats out of a bses-loaded, no-out jam in the seventh inning of Game 1. (Image: Jeff Curry, US Presswire)

Turning point: Mattheus Shuts the Door

Wins awarded to relief pitchers are often the byproduct of being in the right place in the right time, and sometimes even come about as a result of the reliever being bailed out of his own mess by his teammates.

But in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Sunday, Ryan Mattheus got one of the more deserved wins a reliever could earn.

Coming in to a bases-loaded, no-out situation and the Nationals trailing by a run in the seventh innings, Mattheus needed just two pitches to extricate himself from the jam and swing the momentum in the Nationals favor. Washington scored a pair of runs in the very next inning on Tyler Moore‘s pinch-hit RBI single and the Nationals held on for a 3-2 win over St. Louis at Busch Stadium.

Mattheus came on after Craig Stammen‘s second inning of work didn’t match his first, a scoreless sixth to keep the game a 2-1 affair. St. Louis had done very little offensively to that point but led thanks to a supremely wild inning by Nats starter Gio Gonzalez in the second, featuring four walks and a wild pitch that led to two Cardinals runs without the benefit of a hit.

To that point, David Freese had the only St. Louis knocks, singles in the fourth and sixth. But Jon Jay, leading off the seventh for the Cardinals, should have had the team’s third hit as his smash down the first base line took a funky hop and handcuffed Adam LaRoche. The speedy Jay beat LaRoche’s flip to the bag and the sure-handed first baseman was charged with an error, but that was the least of Washington’s worries.

Carlos Beltran followed Jay with a single to center field and Stammen then clipped Matt Holliday‘s jersey with a pitch, loading the bases with no one out. Davey Johnson summoned Mattheus, and the great escape was on.

“[Bullpen coach] Randy [Knorr] just told me, ‘Let’s get three outs before anyone touches home plate,'” said Mattheus to MLB.com’s Tracy Ringolsby.  “It didn’t make any difference if it was three line drives or three strikeouts. We just needed three outs.”

Making matters worse for Washington was the fact that the Cardinals had the middle of their order due to hit. Washington had the corners in and the middle infielders half way, appearing to be willing to trade a run for two outs on a ball up the middle. But when Cardinals clean-up man Allen Craig, the National League leader in batting average with runners in scoring position in 2012, hit Mattheus’s first pitch on a bounce to shortstop, Ian Desmond fired home, cutting down Jay at the plate and maintaining the 2-1 scoreline.

Almost before anyone had time to digest that play, the inning was suddenly over. Yadier Molina again swung at Mattheus’s first pitch, another bouncer to the left side. Ryan Zimmerman picked it and slung to Danny Espinosa at second, who survived a quality take-out slide by Craig to nail Molina at first for an inning-ending double play. Just like that, the Cardinals threat had been extinguished and Mattheus left the mound fired up.

“Yeah, there was definitely some emotion,” Mattheus said to CSN’s Mark Zuckerman. “That’s the biggest game I’ve been in. Those are the biggest three outs and the two biggest pitches I’ve ever made. So being down one run, I wanted to pump the team up and hopefully get some momentum back in our direction.”

Clearly, this was the moment when momentum packed up her bag and started to make her way over the Washington dugout, taking up residence permanently with Moore’s hit. And the icing on the cake? After throwing just two pitches, Mattheus will be available again for Monday’s Game 2.

Tags: Cardinals Nationals Ryan Mattheus St. Louis Cardinals Washington Nationals

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