WASHINGTON — Chris Carpenter wasn't dominant, but he was an ace.
Taking the mound for the fourth time in 2012, missing a rib after surgery to cure numbness on his right side, the right-hander pitched scoreless ball into the sixth inning, rookie Pete Kozma delivered a three-run homer and the defending World Series champion Cardinals beat the Nationals 8-0 Wednesday to take a 2-1 lead in their NL Division Series.
"If the baseball world doesn't know what an amazing competitor he is by now, they haven't been paying any attention," Carpenter's teammate Matt Holliday said. "Every guy on this team has watched him work his way back, watches him in between starts. He's a stud. Just a guy that you want out there."
All in all, it was quite a damper on the day for a Nationals Park-record 45,017 red-wearing, towel-twirling fans witnessing the first postseason game in the nation's capital in 79 years.
Three relievers finished the shutout for the Cardinals, who can end the best-of-five series today at Washington.
"We're not out of this, by a long shot," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "Shoot, I've had my back to worse walls than this."
St. Louis snuck into the postseason as the league's second wild card under this year's new format. But the Cardinals seem to become a different bunch in the playoffs, no matter that slugger Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa are no longer around.
Carpenter, 37, still is, though he didn't expect to pitch this year when he had problems during spring training and needed an operation in July to correct a nerve problem. The top rib on his right side was removed, along with connecting muscles.
He returned Sept. 21, going 0-2 with a solid 3.71 ERA in three starts.
It wasn't clear how he'd fare Wednesday. Except to Carpenter, who improved to 10-2 in his postseason career.
"I'm not going to go out there and compete," he said, "if I'm not good enough to compete."
The Nationals' hitters are struggling mightily. They've scored seven runs in the playoffs and went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left 11 men on base in Game 3.