Never count out the St. Louis Cardinals in October - especially after they lose a series opener.
Carlos Beltran hit the last two of the Cardinals' four homers and St. Louis chased an ineffective Jordan Zimmermann early in a 12-4 rout of the Washington Nationals on Monday that tied their NL division series at one game apiece
"We know this offense has the potential to do this," Cardinals rookie manager Mike Matheny said. "It was nice to see this, and hopefully it becomes contagious and the guys just keep going."
Allen Craig and Daniel Descalso also went deep to help the defending World Series champions build a big lead that compensated for a two-inning start from an ailing Jaime Garcia. Craig hit his fifth career postseason homer and scored three times.
Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche hit consecutive homers in the fifth for the Nationals, who head home for the remainder of the best-of-five series. But the NL East champions are without All-Star ace Stephen Strasburg, shut down for the rest of the season early last month to protect his surgically repaired arm.
Game 3 is Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park. Edwin Jackson starts for Washington against longtime Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, who made only three starts during the regular season because of injury.
"Today, for us, was a must-win game," Beltran said.
The Cardinals seem to live for those. They lost the division series and NLCS openers last fall, then finished strong in the World Series after spotting Texas a 3-2 lead.
So, they're on familiar ground.
"We knew how big this game was for us," center fielder Jon Jay said. "We've seen it all year - when we are able to do that, we are pretty dangerous."
There were no lineup changes in Game 2 of the division series, just a lot more clutch hitting from players accustomed to October pressure.
Beltran homered twice in the postseason for the third time in his career, connecting in the sixth off Mike Gonzalez and eighth off Sean Burnett. Jay had two hits and three RBIs, plus an outstanding catch at the center-field wall to deprive Danny Espinosa of extra bases in the sixth.
"One of the best catches I've seen. I think it's his best catch of the year," Matheny said. "He barely looked up as he was hitting the wall. Very impressive."
St. Louis was 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position during Game 1 and totaled just three hits, but the Cardinals had five hits in a four-run second Monday. Descalso hit his first postseason homer in the fourth, a day after getting robbed by Jayson Werth's leaping catch at the right-field wall, and Beltran's drive off Gonzalez in the sixth banged off the facade in the third deck in left, estimated at 444 feet.
"Their numbers speak for themselves," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said of the Cardinals. "They have got a fine hitting ballclub, and good pitching will slow down good hitting, but you've got to make pitches, and we didn't do that tonight."
Shadows creeped past the pitcher's mound around the third inning and didn't seem to be as big of an issue in Game 2, which started 1Â 1/2 hours later than the opener. Both teams had issues with the playing conditions after the opener.
Late last season, after complaints from Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman, the Cardinals said they'd try not to schedule late afternoon games that might be affected.
Nationals rookie Bryce Harper went 1 for 5 and struck out four times. He also was thrown out at third base on an ill-advised attempt to advance. He is 1 for 10 in the series with six strikeouts.
Zimmermann lasted a season-low three innings while pitching on eight days' rest. His next-shortest outing also was against the Cardinals, when he was gave up a four-run, first-inning cushion and was chased after yielding eight runs in 3 2-3 innings in a 10-9 loss at home.
The numbers weren't favorable for the 25-year-old right-hander prior to first pitch, given he's 0-2 with a 9.45 ERA in five career regular-season starts against the Cardinals. They were 3 for 5 with runners in scoring position against a pitcher who led the majors by holding opponents to a .160 average.
Nationals batters made contact on just four of Garcia's 24 pitches in the first, threatening with a pair of walks. Garcia went to a full count on five of his first eight hitters, and threw 51 pitches in two innings while surrendering Zimmermann's RBI single in the second.
Matheny said Garcia was pulled because of an arm issue. The left-hander missed more than two months this season with a strained shoulder.
"Jaime's arm wasn't feeling right at the time," Matheny said. "He's out right now getting an MRI, getting it looked at. Don't have the results, but we'll be able to comment on that, make a statement tomorrow."
The Cardinals had 18-game winner Lance Lynn warming up in the second and the right-hander stood on the bullpen mound during St. Louis' four-run inning. Pinch-hitter Skip Schumaker stood on the top dugout step while Pete Kozma struck out for the first out in the second and it was no decoy, with Schumaker contributing a run-scoring groundout to the rally.
"I was ready from the get-go in case anything happened," Lynn said. "Something I was able to do at times this year, able to be down in the bullpen a little bit, and I was able to use that experience."
St. Louis opened the second with four straight hits, singles by Craig and Yadier Molina that set the table followed by an RBI double from David Freese and a run-scoring single from Descalso.
Nats fans hoping to get an early look at their team showed up two hours early and waited along the third base line. A break in batting practice for Bryce Harper meant one young Nationals fan got his Harper All Star jersey signed.
"It's pretty cool," says Connor Breyer. "I'm glad he did. I hope he does really well today."
Jeff Hester and his son hit the road in Winchester before they even knew what team the Nats would be played. Today they will experience their second playoff game and are hoping for a win.
"Last year we were one game below 500 and now to win 98 games, it's like Christmas. It's wonderful," says Hester.
Among the first to show up at Busch Stadium were Bryce Harper's dad and big brother. They are hoping the Nats will head back to D.C. with two wins under their belt.
"Good or bad, as long as we get that win. I know that's Bryce's goal, to get that win and to try and enjoy the moment and that's what I've told him, the only advice I can give him is have fun," says his dad.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.