ST. LOUIS -- So close and so good.
That was the story for St. Louis rookie Michael Wacha Tuesday night as he came within one out of a no-hitter in just his ninth major-league start.
Ryan Zimmerman's two-out infield single in the top of the ninth inning denied Wacha history, but couldn't keep him or the Cardinals from moving another step closer to the National League Central title as they settled for a 2-0 shutout of the Washington Nationals.
Wacha (4-1) overpowered Washington most of the game, fanning nine and walking two in a 112-pitch outing. The last pitch is one he and everyone in a crowd of 39,940 won't forget any time soon.
With everyone standing, Zimmerman chopped the first pitch just to the right of the mound. The 6-foot-6 Wacha reached for the ball, but it deflected off his glove and trickled toward shortstop Pete Kozma, who barehanded the ball and hurried a throw to first.
Matt Adams came off the bag and tried a spinning swipe tag on Zimmerman, but couldn't get him. The play was quickly scored an infield hit.
"You can't hate on Pete for not making that play," Wacha said. "He was doing everything he could. My defense is the reason I had a chance at that no-hitter."
"My blazing speed was the reason I got there," Zimmerman joked. "No one ever wants to get no-hit."
Trevor Rosenthal relieved Wacha, whose pitch count was at 112, and retired Jayson Werth on a grounder to first for his second save in as many nights.
St. Louis (93-65) reduced its magic number to three over Pittsburgh, which stayed two games behind after beating the Chicago Cubs 8-2. The Cardinals increased their lead to three games over Cincinnati, a 4-2 loser to the New York Mets.
But the pennant race was a mere sideshow for two hours and 10 minutes as the 22-year old Wacha, a first-round pick in June 2012 out of Texas A&M, wasted little time putting his stamp on this one.
Combining his mid-90s fastball with a devastating changeup and a curve that he consistently threw for strikes, Wacha didn't have to pitch from the stretch until Adam LaRoche reached on an error by second baseman Matt Carpenter with two outs in the fifth.
The Nationals (84-74) had perhaps four hard-hit balls for outs, the last coming on Anthony Rendon's liner to the left-field corner that Shane Robinson ran down to end the eighth and set the stage for Wacha's try at the 11th no-hitter in franchise history.
With the crowd standing on every pitch, Wacha retired pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi on a grounder to Kozma. Denard Span worked a full count before Wacha froze him with a perfect changeup over the outside corner for strike three.
"That pitch," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said, "exemplified what his night was about. His stuff, his composure ... to throw that pitch to Span in the ninth inning ... wow."
But Zimmerman played the role of spoiler as Wacha's teammates mourned. Pitcher Adam Wainwright put his hands over his head in the dugout and third baseman David Freese crouched, his eyes cast to the grass.
"That's the way baseball is," Zimmerman said. "You hit some balls right on the screws, and that swing, that bounce, is what breaks up the no-hitter."
St. Louis scored its runs off Gio Gonzalez (11-8) in the third and fourth. Robinson's two-out single up the middle plated Carpenter in the third, and Yadier Molina doubled home Matt Adams an inning later.
The rest was all about Wacha, who was keenly aware of what he was doing.
"You know when you give up a hit," he said. "You go out there every inning, just trying to pound the strike zone and get that first strike. The crowd was amped up and it provided a lot of adrenaline."
NOTES: St. Louis LF Matt Holliday (back tightness) was sidelined for a third straight game and replaced by Robinson. Holliday hasn't played since Saturday night in Milwaukee, and his status for Wednesday's series finale isn't clear. ... Washington RHP Tanner Roark not only took his first major-league loss Monday night, but also allowed his first homer in the bigs to Carlos Beltran. Roark had worked 45 1/3 homer-free innings. ... St. Louis 1B Allen Craig (foot) is scheduled to undergo more tests Thursday to figure out whether he might be able to contribute to the team during postseason play. Craig, who hasn't played since being injured Sept. 4 in Cincinnati, leads the Cardinals with 97 RBIs.