By Jenifer Langosch and Benjamin Standig
WASHINGTON -- Cardinals righty Michael Wacha improved to 3-0 on the season as he outlasted and outdueled Max Scherzer in St. Louis' 4-1 win at Nationals Park on Thursday.
Both pitchers were strong in their respective seven-inning starts, though Scherzer shouldered the loss, his second this season despite allowing just four earned runs over 28 2/3 innings. The Cardinals ambushed him for a first-inning run when Matt Carpenter and Jason Heyward opened the game with first-pitch hits. Carpenter scored on a wild pitch, though Scherzer then steadied and went on to retire 15 batters over his next 53 pitches.
Wacha had a fifth-inning hiccup -- Denard Span's RBI single tied the game -- but retired three straight with a runner on third to preserve the tie. Matt Adams' two-out single pushed the Cardinals' back in front an inning later, and Mark Reynolds padded the lead with a pinch-hit RBI double in the eighth.
"The guy is one of the best out there," Adams said of Scherzer. "I think we had a pretty good plan against him, going out early and being aggressive early. Whether it's his fastball or secondary stuff, he throws strikes with it. We were ready for it."
Since opening the season with a series-split in Chicago, the Cardinals have won four straight series. Washington fell to 7-16 against St. Louis since 2012.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Reynolds rounds them all: Though Adams had given the Cardinals the lead back with his RBI single in the sixth, manager Mike Matheny opted to pinch-hit for the cleanup hitter when his spot rolled around against lefty Matt Thornton in the eighth. The at-bat went to Mark Reynolds, who, after the Nationals summoned righty reliever Aaron Barrett, dropped an RBI double into the right-center gap. Reynolds didn't stop at second, though, but came all the way home when the Nats sailed throws over the catcher and then second baseman.
"Big hit. We needed that," Matheny said. "He's a weapon. We just have to try and get opportunities like that to get him comfortable with that [part-time playing] role and comfortable at the plate."
Middling Max: Allowing two runs and six hits over seven innings works wonders most games. Yet Scherzer wasn't his usual Cy Young-level sharp, starting with Carpenter's double on the opening pitch. He finished with four strikeouts after having at least eight in each of his previous three starts. Scherzer's ERA had nowhere to go but up, which it did slightly to 1.26. Ultimately this was more about not clearing his own high bar than struggling. The right-hander pitched his final two innings after jamming his thumb during a fifth inning at-bat.
"It shouldn't be too serious," Scherzer said. "I look forward to getting out there and pitching my next start." More >
Wacha throws heat past Harper: Having just allowed a game-tying single to Span in the fifth, Wacha found himself in a pickle with runners on the corners and none out. He retired Ian Desmond on an infield popup, which led to a showdown against three-hole hitter Bryce Harper. Harper fouled off Wacha's first two pitches before swinging through a 94-mph fastball. Wacha, who then retired Ryan Zimmerman to close the inning, struck out a season-high six over seven innings. More >
"[I was] just attacking him, trying to keep him off balance, mixing in and out," Wacha said. "I ended up getting a big-time strikeout there."
Oh Danny boy:Danny Espinosa's quality start at the plate this season turned into an 0-for-10 skid until the second baseman doubled off the right-field wall in the fifth. After aggressively taking third base on Scherzer's grounder to third, Espinosa scored on Span's hit through the right side of the infield, tying the game 1-1. Scherzer took third on the play with no outs, but did not score.
"Zero. We just come out and play. We have a lot of respect for them. They're a very good team. We don't talk about that. We don't think about it. We just come out and play the game." -- Matheny, when asked how much he's thought about his team's recent success against the Nationals (13-3 since 2012)
"When we have guys at first and third, we have to get them in. We can't kick the ball. We have to play good defense whether against the Cardinals or anybody else. You're setting yourself up for being on the wrong end off the stick if you do those things." -- Nats manager Matt Williams on the eighth-inning miscues
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
Umpires initially ruled Scherzer out at first on a grounder to shortstop in the fifth, during which Espinosa ran from second to third. The Nationals challenged the call and the play was overturned as first baseman Adams pulled his foot off the base while anticipating throwing back to third with Espinosa on the move. Adams was charged with his third error of the series, noting afterward that the series was "not my best, that's for sure." More >
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals: They will open up a three-game series in Milwaukee with a 7:05 pm CT game on Friday. Carlos Martinez draws the start for the Cardinals, who are expecting Peter Bourjos to be back in uniform after his three-day absence on paternity leave.
Nationals: They start a three-game series in Miami with a 7:10 ET game on Friday. Jordan Zimmermann looks to snap a personal two-game losing streak and lower his 6.14 ERA. Last season he went 3-0 in six starts against Miami
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch and like her Facebook
Benjamin Standig is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.