The 2012 National League Division Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals featured two teams with something to prove, but for substantially different reasons. The Cardinals were the defending World Series champions. They were facing a Nationals team making its first postseason appearance since moving from Montreal in 2005.
The departures of longtime manager Tony La Russa and three-time MVP Albert Pujols presented a substantial challenge for St. Louis. Yet the Cards snuck into the 2012 postseason via the newly introduced second wild-card spot with 88 wins, then defeated the favored Atlanta Braves in the first National League wild-card game. The contest would come to be known as the “infield fly rule game” because of umpire Sam Holbrook’s controversial call in the eighth inning that gave the Cardinals their biggest break of the season.1 St. Louis advanced to face an upstart Nationals squad that was taking the first steps into building what many considered the decade’s most dominant franchise.
With a productive lineup and a pitching staff that boasted the NL’s best ERA (3.33),2 the NL East champions finished with 98 wins, the best record in the major leagues.3 But as much as rookie sensation and team catalyst Bryce Harper had to work to prove his legitimacy, the team as a whole had to make it apparent that its regular-season dominance would carry over in its first postseason appearance.
The Cardinals translated their postseason experience into a two-games-to-one series advantage heading into Game Four, but they were given a taste of their own flair for the dramatic when Jayson Werth won a 13-pitch battle against Lance Lynn and extended the series to the limit with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth.4
Entering the series finale, both teams sent out their aces in hopes that they would keep what had become an inconsistent pair of offenses at bay for one more game. For the Cardinals, it was Adam Wainwright, who was still steadily rebounding after Tommy John surgery had shifted his position from the team’s best pitcher to its loudest cheerleader in their 2011 championship run.5
Opposing Wainwright was Washington’s biggest offseason acquisition: Gio Gonzalez, a southpaw who led the league with 21 victories and would finish third in the Cy Young Award voting.6 What Gonzalez lacked was the postseason experience that his opposite had. Wainwright played an essential role as a rookie closer during the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series triumph. Games like this were seemingly tailor-made for the veteran righty, who was never a stranger to the big moment in his career.
Despite that, the Nationals wasted no time attacking Wainwright’s pitches. The top of the lineup rattled off a double, triple, and home run in consecutive fashion by Werth, Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman before Wainwright could record an out. Even as he escaped the inning giving up just those three runs, his offense was silenced by Gonzalez’s early dominance, striking out four and allowing only two hits through the third inning.
The Nationals’ barrage resumed as the top of the lineup came up again in the bottom of the third, with Harper and Michael Morse going deep and ending Wainwright’s night. No team had ever come back from such a deficit in a winner-take-all affair.
But as had been the case so often during the past two seasons, the Cardinals began to rally. Matt Holliday’s double brought in their first run of the game in the fourth, and once Gonzalez escaped that inning, it was up to the St. Louis bullpen to settle in if there was to be any chance.
With a group of young fireballers who finished under the league average in runs allowed in relief despite limited experience,7 the Cardinals bullpen held the Nationals scoreless until the eighth.
Gonzalez was chased in the fifth, and the Nationals bullpen did little to stop the Cardinals, who had turned the 6-0 score into a 6-5 nail-biter. The aura of excitement just a few innings earlier at Nationals Park had turned to one of fear and anxiety.
Washington’s bats finally broke through the Cardinals’ bullpen in the bottom of the eighth. Kurt Suzuki capped a series of singles with one of his own against Jason Motte to provide an insurance run, headed to the ninth. St. Louis was three outs away from seeing its championship defense end at the hands of a team that had finished over .500 for the first time.
Washington sent out its rookie closer Drew Storen to end the series. Through three appearances in the series thus far, he had been untouchable, allowing one baserunner via a walk in three hitless frames.8 But the Cardinals were leading off with possibly the best man they could, the productive postseason slugger Carlos Beltran. He immediately lit the fire with a double. Despite having the tying run at the plate, all St. Louis could muster was moving Beltran to third on Holiday’s groundout. Storen sent Allen Craig down swinging to bring his club an out away from its first series victory.
Storen came inches from doing so in two straight opportunities. Both Yadier Molina and David Freese saw the count reach two strikes, putting St. Louis a strike away from elimination. But just as the Cardinals had overcome this same scenario twice in the 2011 World Series, they did so again. Storen walked both batters to load the bases for Daniel Descalso, who jumped on the first pitch to him for a ground single that barely escaped the glove of shortstop Ian Desmond, tying the game, 7-7.
Completing the biggest comeback in a winner-take-all game in postseason history, shortstop Pete Kozma’s two-run single, following Descalso’s, put the Cardinals up 9-7.
The Nationals were set down in order by the rejuvenated Motte in the bottom of the inning, completing a record comeback and sending St. Louis on to the NLCS.
There, the Cardinals led three games to one before losing the NL title in seven games to the San Francisco Giants, the team that would go on to win the 2012 World Series.
Box scores/play-by-play information were accessed via Baseball-Reference.com (baseball-reference.com/boxes/WAS/WAS201210120.shtml) and Retrosheet.org (retrosheet.org/boxesetc/2012/B10120WAS2012.htm).
1 Holbrook, umpiring on the left-field line, called the infield-fly rule on a pop fly that landed between two fielders 90 feet beyond the infield. If he had not invoked the rule, the Braves, trailing 6-3, would have had the bases loaded with one out.
4 Sports Reference LLC, “2012 NL Division Series, St. Louis Cardinals over Washington Nationals (3-2).” Baseball-Reference.com, baseball-reference.com/postseason/2012_NLDS1.shtml, accessed November 30, 2019.
5 Ken Rosenthal, “Wainwright Excelled in Cheerleader Role,” Foxsports.com, February 27, 2012, foxsports.com/mlb/story/st-louis-cardinals-adam-wainwright-relished-role-as-team-cheerleader-in-year-off-due-to-injury-022712.
7 Sports Reference LLC, “2012 MLB Relief Pitching.” Baseball-Reference.com, baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/2012-reliever-pitching.shtml, accessed November 30, 2019.
8 Series overview, baseball-reference.com/postseason/2012_NLDS1.shtml.