WASHINGTON -- For the second time in one week, the Cardinals have played themselves into a win-or-go-home situation. Yet unlike their late-season push to earn a spot in the National League Wild Card game, this was an elimination game the Cards never wanted to see.
As the Nationals celebrated a 2-1 walk-off victory -- one that Jayson Werth sealed with a homer to lead off the ninth -- in Game 4 of the NL Division Series on Thursday, the defending World Series champions were left to regroup. Having wasted a sensational start from Kyle Lohse, the Cardinals will put their season on the shoulders of Adam Wainwright in Friday's Game 5 (7:30 p.m. CT on TBS).
"We've had a very large amount of heartbreakers this year, and I think that's really been used to develop the character of this team and the resiliency," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's a tough one, but [we're] still alive to play another game."
Staying alive has been this club's recent postseason forte. The Cards played four elimination games last season. They won all of them. The streak of must-win wins extended in Atlanta last Friday, leaving Allen Craig to say after Thursday's loss: "We're going to have to find another way to do it."
St. Louis' chance to book an NL Championship Series matchup with San Francisco was put on hold by four Washington pitchers who picked up a staff that had been knocked around incessantly the previous two games. Thursday's pitching quartet limited the Redbirds to one unearned run and three hits. The Nats' pitchers combined for 10 strikeouts.
That left the Cardinals' own staff vulnerable late, and the Nationals -- seven innings after scoring their first run -- plated the last.
Matheny turned to Lance Lynn, who helped lift the Cards to a Game 2 win with Monday's 50-pitch relief appearance, to hold a 1-1 game in the ninth. Werth, 0-for-2 with two strikeouts against Lynn in the series, was to lead off.
"We've faced him a lot over September and in the series," Werth said. "So I knew what he had."
A 13-pitch at-bat ensued. Midway through, Werth got his read -- he was going to sit on the fastball.
With the count full and after having fouled off seven pitches, Werth drove a 96-mph fastball over the left-field wall, sending a sellout crowd of 44,392 into a frenzy.
"Everyone in the city knew what I was throwing there," Lynn said. "I gave him my best pitch, and he hit it out. I was challenging him, and he was up for it."
St. Louis' two losses in the series have come by a combined two runs. The club outscored Washington, 20-4, in its two victories. Those numbers are mere details, though, as the all-important win column is all even.
As the Cardinals' pitchers have been for much of the series, Lohse was superb and limited the Nationals to two hits. The only costly one was the first, a solo homer Adam LaRoche deposited in the grass beyond the center-field wall. It capped a nine-pitch second-inning at-bat by the first baseman and gave Washington its first lead since the second inning of Game 2.
Lohse answered by retiring 16 of the next 17 batters he faced. The only interruption during that string was a one-out single by Ryan Zimmerman in the fifth. Seven pitches later, Lohse was headed to the dugout.
The righty needed only 25 pitches to finish three more scoreless frames. Lohse's final pitch, which came after a mound conference with Matheny, induced an inning-ending double play.
"I just did what I had to do and got the ground ball I needed," Lohse said. "It was one of the few ground balls we got, so that was a key play right there at that time."
Lohse, who pitched the Cardinals to the NL Wild Card game win on Friday, ended the day with a pitch count of only 87.
"I've watched Kyle Lohse do that all season long," Matheny said. "From Opening Day, he's just done a terrific job of taking advantage of the opportunities and has put together a solid season. We knew he was going to give us a chance. That's all we can ask, and he did that today."
Lohse would not, however, leave in line for a second straight postseason win, because Nats starter Ross Detwiler -- the same one the Cards chased after 2 1/3 innings during the final week of the regular season -- was just as dominant.
On a day when home-plate umpire Jim Joyce applied a liberal strike zone for both clubs, Detwiler, a St. Louis-area native, stymied an offense that had scored 20 runs on 27 hits in the last two games of this NLDS.
"We knew after a few innings that Jim had a pretty wide zone," David Freese said. "But I think it was pretty consistent for both sides. You work with what you have. Their pitchers have good action, especially with their fastballs, and had good sink tonight."
The Cardinals tallied three hits (all singles) in Detwiler's six-inning start. It took an error by shortstop Ian Desmond to help St. Louis push across the tying run in the third. The one-out error on Jon Jay's grounder allowed Pete Kozma to take third. Carlos Beltran lifted a sacrifice fly to center to score the rookie shortstop.
The Cards went hitless in their three other chances with runners in scoring position against Detwiler.
"We just couldn't put anything together," Beltran said. "He was basically the same [as last time], but the thing I could see was that he was hitting the low part of the strike zone. When pitchers are able to do that, they're going to be successful."
Washington's bullpen, beat up in the previous two games, then took over with new life. Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann struck out the side in the seventh. Tyler Clippard did the same in the eighth to work around a two-out walk. Drew Storen struck out two in a scoreless ninth.
For just the sixth time in postseason history, both clubs were held to three or fewer hits.
"We just couldn't break through," Craig said. "It was a great competitive game. Unfortunately we lost, but we'll come back tomorrow and get it done."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.