WASHINGTON -- A dominant performance from right-hander Mike Leake and a three-hit, five RBI performance from Stephen Piscotty led the Cardinals to a 6-1 victory at Nationals Park on Wednesday. The victory helped St. Louis (3-6) escape Washington with a victory to avoid a series sweep and prevent their worst start since 1997.
"It was a good win," Piscotty said after the team snapped its three-game losing streak. "I felt good to put some good swings on some balls. Leake did a tremendous job on the mound. We played good defense. I think, win or lose today, we just wanted to have a good showing effort-wise, cleanliness-wise. It's so dang early that no one in here is hitting the panic button."
It was another terrific start for Leake, who allowed one run in eight innings in a loss to the Reds in the season opener, then followed up that performance with seven strikeouts in seven shutout innings in this game. Leake began the day by giving up hits to the first two hitters he faced before he retired 19 consecutive batters.
"What an amazing job all the way around," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "And the way he did it just kind of seems to be a carryover from what we've seen so far this spring. It'll be nice to watch all season long."
The Nationals rallied in the seventh as Leake allowed back-to-back hits to Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman to bring the potential tying run to the plate in Jayson Werth. But on his 104th pitch of the afternoon, Leake froze Werth on a sinker over the outside part of the plate for a called third strike to escape the jam as Werth tossed his bat to the ground in frustration.
Piscotty drove in runs with an RBI double in the first inning and a single in the fifth, and then put the game out of reach with a three-run homer in the ninth off Sammy Solis. The Cardinals also scored a pair of unearned runs after a sloppy day from the Nationals defense, which has now committed nine errors in their first nine games.
"Yeah, it always concerns me when you don't catch it or throw it because you're giving away outs," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "You give away extra outs and the game wasn't designed for 30 outs vs. 27. We've just got to tighten our defense up ... we've got to tighten our entire game up."
Max Scherzer threw an uncharacteristic three wild pitches, but despite that trouble with his command he gave up just four hits and struck out 10 in six innings, his first double digit strikeout game of the year.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Down goes Harper: Matheny turned to struggling reliever Brett Cecil in an eighth-inning jam, and for the first time this season, Cecil kept the baserunners he inherited from scoring. With runners on the corners and two out, Cecil went to a 3-2 count against Bryce Harper, who then lined a ball that third baseman Jedd Gyorko snagged with a lunge to his right. With an exit velocity of 94.8 mph and a launch angle of six degrees, the ball had a hit probability of 59 percent. Instead, it ended the Nationals' final offensive threat.
"We played him there pretty much the whole game," Gyorko said of his positioning on the play. "Yesterday, he hit the ball down the third-base line, so we could tell he was trying to stay behind the ball a little bit more than usual. … We just kind of played him where we had [done so] the whole time. It just happened to be in the right spot." More >
Adding insurance: With his three-run homer in the ninth, Piscotty matched his career high with five RBIs in the game. The home run came off Joe Blanton, who was the third Nationals reliever to pitch in the inning. It was Piscotty's first home run of the season and the first by the team's cleanup hitter since Sept. 6, 2016.
"We needed some breathing room there in a two-run game," Matheny said. "Just a big home run. We talk about how this kid just seems to figure it out when these situations come up. It's pretty special."
Nationals relievers have now surrendered nine of the 10 home runs the team has given up this season.
"We're just making a few bad pitches and we're getting penalized with it," catcher Matt Wieters said. "Those guys in the bullpen have great arms and great stuff. I think we get them back to locating their fastball and then throwing their breaking stuff like it is they'll be fine. Right now it seems like every time when they leave one in the middle somebody puts a good swing on it."
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
The Cardinals helped extinguish Washington's first-inning threat with a successful challenge on a bang-bang call at first base. Anthony Rendon had been ruled safe after scrambling back to the base on Leake's pickoff attempt. The call was overturned, however, after a 48-second review. Leake followed with a strikeout and groundout to strand a runner at third.
"That's a game-changing play, for sure," Matheny said. "Just doing some of those little things we talked about. It's something that's going to pay off."
The Cardinals were not successful when they asked for the umpires to review Adam Eaton's slide into second base in the eighth. It took only 45 seconds to determine that Eaton had not violated the slide rule as he slid in attempting to break up the double play.
WHAT'S NEXT Cardinals: Following Thursday's off day, the Cardinals will open a three-game series against the Yankees. It will be the team's first visit to the Bronx since 2003, and its first Interleague series this season. Michael Wacha will oppose Masahiro Tanaka in the series opener. First pitch is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. CT.
Nationals: The Nationals have an off-day Thursday before they open up a three-game series with the Phillies for a 4:05 p.m. ET start Friday afternoon at Nationals Park. Stephen Strasburg will take the mound; he has lasted at least seven innings in each of his last five starts against Philadelphia.