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Cardinals beat the Nationals' heat to seize critical 2-1 lead in NLDS

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "They are a good fastball-hitting club," Davey Johnson said of the Cardinals two nights ago, in the moments after they'd beaten his Nationals 12-4 to even the NLDS at 1-1.

"This is a good fastball-hitting club," he repeated a minute later.

"A good fastball-hitting club," he would say once more, in case anyone had missed his point.

The Cardinals, by any metric, field a potent offense. They scored more runs during the regular season, 765, than every other National League club but the Brewers, and more than every American League team save the Yankees, Rangers and Angels. A deeper look inside the Cardinals' success serves to corroborate Johnson's observation, and to suggest that the more fastballs you throw to St. Louis, the worse off you are.

This season, seven National League pitchers who completed at least 150 innings (and who do not happen to be participating in this series) threw fastballs on more than 45 percent of their deliveries, and none of them was anything close to bottom-of-the-rotation filler. The Cardinals faced six of those pitchers, whose combined regular season ERA was a healthy 3.64: Homer Bailey, A.J. Burnett, Tommy Hanson, Josh Johnson, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Minor.

It is not just that the pitchers' ERAs were higher against the Cardinals than they were on the whole, although they were, in each case. That might be expected, given their above average run production. The telling thing is how much higher the group's ERA was when facing St. Louis. Those six pitchers threw 72.2 innings against the Cardinals this season, and combined for an ERA of 6.07.

On Monday, the Cardinals faced another very good hurler who relies heavily on his fastball, Jordan Zimmermann, who according to FanGraphs.com this year threw the pitch 62.1 percent of the time, more than anyone save Kershaw and the Yankees' Phil Hughes. You know the result, and the thrust of Zimmermann's manager's postgame comments.

In Wednesday afternoon's Game 3, Johnson sent to the mound another hard thrower whose success is tied on his fastball, and his ability to work off of it: Edwin Jackson, who this year threw heaters on 54.6 percent of his pitches, the tenth highest rate in baseball. The result should not be difficult to guess. By the middle of the second inning, the Cardinals had recorded as many hits -- six -- as Jackson had outs, and had built a 4-0 advantage, one that would more than hold up. They ended up winning 8-0 to take a 2-1 lead in this best of five series. The final five of those six early hits came against Jackson's fastball, including Allen Craig's RBI double in the first inning, and the usually light-hitting rookie shortstop Pete Kozma's three-run homer in the second.

It is, of course, no easy thing for anyone to hit a 93.8 mile an hour pitch -- that was Jackson's fastball's average velocity on Wednesday -- and the Cardinals are blessed with a lineup that is stocked with hitters who can do it, and do it consistently. But their proficiency is also a matter of approach, one stressed by their hitting coach, Mark McGwire. The Cardinals were familiar with Jackson, as he pitched for them last season, and even Johnson noted on Tuesday that such a prior relationship can sometimes work in the advantage of batters, not the pitcher.

"Remember, I've played behind pitchers, and then when I got traded, I knew what they threw and how they liked to work, whether they liked to work in or out and how they set up their breaking ball," Johnson said. "So I think it's a good advantage to know and play behind the pitcher."

So the Cardinals entered the day intimately aware of Jackson's habits, which might have given them some leg up -- but his habits aren't so different from any of the other fastball-heavy hurlers who they have ably dispatched. Pitchers like Jackson, and Zimmermann too, almost always follow a pattern, whereby they like to throw fastballs early in the count, in order to set up their breaking pitches, which are much more difficult to handle. So, McGwire tells his charges: be ready to swing.

"We were just trying to get after him early in the count," said Matt Holliday, who went 3-for-5 with two RBI's, in the victorious clubhouse. "He's one of those guys that has a devastating slider late in the count. We were just trying to get to him, trying to get a good fastball to hit -- or even a cutter or slider -- something up that we can handle." Craig's first inning double came on Jackson's second pitch to him; Kozma's home run came on his first, as did, for good measure, the single that Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter hit immediately after it.

The question, then, is that if you know a team is both looking and able to crush your fastball, as the Nationals surely did after Zimmermann's outing on Monday, then why would you keep throwing it? One reason might be that it is very difficult for a pitcher to believe that what has worked for him for an entire season, and an entire career, suddenly won't against a particular opponent, until he has tried his usual approached and become convinced for himself that it won't work. It is, in other words, very difficult for most pitchers to all of a sudden become a different pitcher. Though Jackson, to his credit -- albeit belatedly -- tried.

By the time Carpenter hit his single, Jackson had thrown 14 fastballs and eight sliders. During the rest of his outing, he delivered just 13 more fastballs and 30 sliders, and he yielded no additional runs and two additional hits through five innings. "Jax, he's got nasty stuff," said David Freese, who went 2-for-5. "When his slider's working, it starts in the zone and drops off. You could tell later on we were chasing it, `cause it's dirty." It was also, however, too late, due to the Cardinals' early outburst, and a vintage performance from Carpenter, who allowed no runs on seven hits in 5.2 innings of work.

After coming up on the wrong side of back-to-back blowouts, the Nationals are one loss away from elimination. With Stephen Strasburg -- who is the one pitcher whose fastball even the Cardinals might not be able to catch up, and who is also a pitcher with a deep enough repertoire to quickly adjust even if they did -- chained, rightly or wrongly, to the bench, Washington's season hinges on Ross Detwiler, who will start against Kyle Lohse on Thursday afternoon. Eleventh on the list of National Leaguers who most frequently threw their fastballs sits Detwiler, at 47 percent. Washington's season might depend on his arriving at another approach.

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