If there was any doubt as to how hard the Cardinals were going to play in the final week of the regular season, with a playoff spot locked up and a good grip on the National League Central, Michael Wacha put his foot on the pedal and never let up on Tuesday night.
Wacha held the Nationals hitless through 26 outs, but Ryan Zimmerman had an infield single with two outs in the ninth to break up the no-hitter as the Cardinals won, 2-0.
Next up in the Cardinals' rotation: Shelby Miller.
The Cardinals strategically and carefully carved out Miller's usage this season, holding the 22-year-old to 167 1/3 innings over 30 starts (less than six innings per start). Miller pitched 104 1/3 innings in 2010, 139 2/3 innings in 2011 and 150 1/3 innings in 2012. He could push 200 if the Cardinals advance through the playoffs.
But the Cardinals aren't letting up in any way as they enter their 159th regular-season game, on Wednesday against the Nationals. They're still two games in front of the Pirates in the NL Central and a half-game behind the Braves for best record in the NL. They would need to win that race with the Braves outright to claim home-field advantage, since the Braves won the season series, thus owning the tiebreaker edge.
"That's huge for a short series like the playoffs -- being able to start at home," outfielder Carlos Beltran said. "We're looking forward to finishing the season with the best record. That's something that we're shooting for."
A year ago, the Cardinals were fighting just to get into the playoffs.
"A fight's a fight," said manager Mike Matheny. "It feels like we're in a fight. We show up here every day excited and anxious. Can't wait to get out here and watch our guys do their thing and watch it play out. But it's very similar to last year. We just feel like we've got something to prove every night."
The Nationals will get one last chance to watch Jordan Zimmermann take the mound in what's been a fantastic season for the 27-year-old. At 19-8, Zimmermann has a chance to become the National League's first 20-game winner and join Max Scherzer as the only 20-game winners in the Majors this season. No other pitcher had 19 wins as of Tuesday.
Last season, Gio Gonzalez, R.A. Dickey, Jered Weaver and David Price were the only 20-game winners.
The Nationals have already been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention and plan to start some of their bench players in the season's final series. But manager Davey Johnson, who will retire at season's end, rolled out his full-strength starting lineup in Tuesday's game. It still wasn't enough.
The Nats have struggled to score runs all year, but their offense had started to come alive before getting shut out by Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal. As of Tuesday, they were tied for third in the Majors with 114 runs in September.
Cardinals: Holliday dealing with sore back
The Cardinals are getting used to making playoff runs without Matt Holliday at full capacity. He was limited due to a hand injury when the Cards won the World Series in 2011 and resorted to pinch-hitting duty until the fifth game of the NLDS against the Phillies.
Now Holliday is dealing with back soreness. He was a late scratch Sunday and Monday, and was again held out of Tuesday's lineup.
"I just think it tightens up every once in a while," Matheny said. "I think people with bad backs understand it just happens. It comes and goes. Hopefully, one more day, maybe tomorrow and the off-day. We'll see. [We] just have to follow along, see how it feels."
Nationals: Werth playing big
Jayson Werth is having his best season since Washington signed the outfielder to a seven-year, $126 million contract before the 2011 season.
As of Tuesday, Werth ranks among the NL's top five in OPS (.930), slugging percentage (.532), batting average (.318) and on-base percentage (.397). Since July 1, Werth is hitting .351 with 16 homers and a 1.034 OPS.
• Injured first baseman Allen Craig was away from the team Tuesday for personal reasons, Matheny said. Craig is back home in California, but is expected to return to St. Louis by Thursday when he is scheduled for X-rays and a re-evaluation of his sprained left foot.
• The Nationals have lost their last six games against the Cardinals and hold a 23-33 record against them since the club began playing in D.C. in 2005.