There was only a moment during Game 4 of the NLCS on Tuesday when it felt as though whatever weird hex had enveloped the last seven years of Washington Nationals baseball might be ready to rear its ugly head once more. It was in the top of the eighth inning, when the St. Louis Cardinals loaded the bases with two outs and a three-run deficit. Washington had once led 7-0, but a rally by the Cardinals in the middle innings more than halved that advantage, and now, they actually had the tying run on base. It was on this same field, seven years ago, that the Cardinals had erased a 6-0 deficit to win a do-or-die Game 5 in the NLDS, and it was on this same field that the Nationals’ bullpen had let so many games slip away over the years. For a minute, one could see the narrative beginning to snap back into place. But then, Daniel Hudson forced Matt Carpenter to roll over on a groundball to second base, and Washington inched closer to one of the most dominant series victories in recent memory.
The Nationals defeated St. Louis by a score of 7-4 on Tuesday, completing a four-game sweep that secured the first pennant in franchise history. They outscored the Cardinals 20-6 in the series, with their pitchers yielding just five earned runs, seven walks, and one home run while striking out 48 in 36 innings. That works out to a 1.25 ERA, 12 K/9, 1.75 BB/9, and 0.25 HR/9 in the four biggest games of their season. It was the first NLCS sweep since the Mets defeated the Cubs in 2015, and just the third NLCS sweep of the last 24 years.
Patrick Corbin was the latest Washington starting pitcher to baffle Cardinals hitters. He struck out the side in the first inning, and went on to fan seven of the first nine batters he faced and a total of 12 in just five innings of work. He also allowed three walks, along with four runs on four hits. Corbin got swings and misses on 24 of the 94 pitches he threw, giving him a whiff rate of 25.5% that stands as the highest he’s ever registered in a start in his career according to Baseball Savant. Of those 24 whiffs, 16 came against his slider, which he threw a total of 42 times. Just one of those sliders was put into play by a Cardinals batter.
Like the series as a whole, the Nationals wasted no time taking control of this game. Trea Turner started things with a single to right, and motored to third when Adam Eaton followed with a double to center. Turner then scored the game’s first run on a sacrifice fly by Anthony Rendon, before Juan Soto smacked an opposite field double down the left field line to score Eaton and make it a 2-0 game:
Things were already going south for St. Louis, but that was only the beginning. Cardinals manager Mike Schildt intentionally walked Howie Kendrick — he likes to do that sort of thing — to set up a double play with runners at first and second and no outs. St. Louis starting pitcher Dakota Hudson immediately got the ground ball he was after, but it was hit hard enough that it took a terrific save by Tommy Edman to keep the ball from reaching the outfield. When the rookie third baseman threw the ball to second baseman Kolten Wong, however, Wong dropped it, and all the runners were safe to load the bases. It took just one play for the Cardinals to make an even worse defensive miscue, as a Victor Robles pop-up in shallow right field fell in front of Jose Martinez, who pulled up at the last second expecting Wong to make the play. A follow-up single by Yan Gomes plated two more runs and prompted Schildt to replace Hudson with Adam Wainwright, who then gave up another two-run single to Turner. Cardinals pitchers had thrown just 18 pitches, and they were behind 7-0:
It was a scene the Cardinals are quite familiar with. An escalating run total, helped out by defensive blunders and grounders that narrowly avoided being turned into outs. A stunned pitcher on the mound, trusted with preserving his team for another game, suddenly powerless to stop the opponents’ rally. The cloud of dread settling into one of the dugouts, as players and coaches watched a game escape their grasp before the first inning had even ended. Just six days ago, these were the ingredients the Cardinals had used to smother the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the NLDS. But this time, they found themselves on the other side of it.
The man shouldering that responsibility on the mound was 25-year-old right-hander Hudson. Hudson isn’t a dominant pitcher, but as Craig Edwards touched on before the game, his style of pitching tends to mesh well with how the Cardinals play defense. On Tuesday, however, he simply couldn’t get hitters off balance. Of the 15 pitches he threw, just four finished in the strike zone. All four resulted in base hits:
The first inning was a disaster for the Cardinals, but they managed to keep their opponents’ bats at bay over the rest of the game. Wainwright worked a scoreless second inning, and the trio of Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, and Andrew Miller combined to throw six shutout innings after that while allowing just two hits and one walk with seven punch-outs. The defense settled down as well, playing clean enough baseball to give itself the best possible chance to get back into the game with the bats.
And eventually, those bats came around. Yadier Molina hit the Cardinals’ only home run of the series in the fourth inning to get his team on the board, and the team finally posted its first crooked number of the series in the fifth. Corbin allowed St. Louis to load the bases with nobody out thanks to two walks and a single, and after a groundout by Edman and a two-run double by Martinez, the Cardinals were suddenly within striking distance, the deficit narrowed to 7-4. But Corbin struck out Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna to end the threat there, and Tanner Rainey and Sean Doolittle combined to shut the Cardinals down over the next two frames to keep the game where it was. St. Louis rallied again in the eighth inning, but failed to get another big swing. It took Hudson just 10 pitches to retire the side in order in the ninth. Washington’s spot in the World Series was denied no longer.
The fight for the right to face the Nationals comes down to the Astros and Yankees, with the former leading the series 2-1. Whoever wins that fight will have their hands full. With Game 1 not scheduled until Tuesday, Washington has plenty of chance to rest its players after what has already been an extended playoff run thanks to its appearance in the Wild Card game, and is free to set its pitching rotation however it sees fit. That’s a scary thought for a team whose starters have logged a 1.75 ERA since Game 1 of the NLDS, and have often pitched late enough into games for the team’s (suddenly not so) troublesome bullpen to be a minimal factor. The team’s offense has been impressive as well, with Rendon and Kendrick leading a deep lineup that even got bounce-back efforts from Turner and Soto on Tuesday, with each recording two hits after scuffling for much of the series. It’s nothing new to say the Nationals are scary in October. But this year, for once, it’s opposing fans who should be feeling spooked.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.