Dodgers eliminate Nationals in NLDS

Thursday night was supposed to be different.
Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz (51) celebrates with left fielder Howie Kendrick and first after scoring a run during the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals during Game 5 the National League Division Series Thursday at Nationals Park.
Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz (51) celebrates with left fielder Howie Kendrick and first after scoring a run during the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals during Game 5 the National League Division Series Thursday at Nationals Park.

Thursday night was supposed to be different. This time the Washington Nationals had Max Scherzer, by all measures an undisputed ace, and an offense that was clicking at the right time. This time, though it was tied at two games apiece, they believed they had outplayed the Los Angeles Dodgers in this best-of-five National League Division Series. This time, the Nationals were poised to finally break through and advance to the first National League Championship Series in club history.

Only this time it wasn’t different. More despair, in the form of a catastrophic seventh inning, added another chapter to their brief history of postseason failures in a 4-3 Game 5 loss to the Dodgers at Nationals Park.

It is the Nationals’ third loss in the NLDS in five seasons. A Washington professional baseball team still hasn’t won a playoff series since 1924.

A four-run seventh inning for the Dodgers — that started with Scherzer surrendering a game-tying home run to Joc Pederson on his 99th and final pitch and featured five relievers — doomed the Nationals. Washington came back with two runs in the bottom of the frame on Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit home run, but closer Kenley Jansen entered with no outs in the seventh inning to stop any further damage and pitched until the ninth inning, when Clayton Kershaw, who started Game 4 two days earlier, recorded the final two outs of the Nationals’ season.

For six innings, Scherzer was the big-game pitcher the Nationals envisioned when they signed him to the richest contract in franchise history two winters ago. He mowed through the lefty-saturated Dodgers lineup, regularly using a devastating change-up to flummox batters, until finally yielding his first hit to Josh Reddick to begin the fifth inning. A bases-loaded quandary resulted, but he did not succumb. First, he got Andre Ethier to swing at another change-up for strike three and the second out, pumping his fist and letting out a yell at the sight. One pitch later, Chase Utley grounded out, the inning was over, and the sea of red gushed.

Additional run support finally appeared imminent in the bottom half of the frame, First, Jayson Werth worked a leadoff against 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias. Two outs followed before Ryan Zimmerman cracked a line drive into the left-field corner. Werth raced from first to third base, where he was aggressively sent home by third-base coach Bob Henley. Earlier in the game, Henley had risked sending Daniel Murphy home on Danny Espinosa’s single to right field, testing Josh Reddick’s arm. Reddick’s throw beat Murphy, but went up the base line, allowing Murphy to dance around Yasmani Grandal’s tag past home plate and back to touch it for the game’s first run.

The second gamble proved disastrous. The relay from left fielder Andrew Toles to shortstop Corey Seager to Grandal was flawless and beat Werth by 30 feet.

Dusty Baker thought he could squeeze one more inning out of Scherzer. The right-hander had thrown 98 and there were three lefties in the bullpen to counter the Dodgers bevy of left-handed batters, but Baker sent him out for the seventh inning to face the home-run-or-nothing, left-handed Joc Pederson.

The decision immediately backfired. Scherzer’s first pitch was a 95-mph fastball down and away that Pederson lofted over the left-field wall. It was the last pitch Scherzer threw, a fitting conclusion for a Cy Young Award candidate whose resume this season was stained by his tendency to surrender home runs at a perplexingly high rate.

A game of matchups ensued. First, Baker chose left-hander Marc Rzepczynski out of his bullpen to face Yasmani Grandal, a switch-hitter. Grandal walked on four pitches. When the right-handed hitting Howie Kendrick was announced as a pinch-hitter for Andrew Toles, Baker emerged from the dugout again to replace Rzepczynski with right-hander Blake Treinen, another groundball specialist. Kendrick smacked a single to left field anyway.

The Nationals were gifted an out when Charlie Culberson, pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot, struck out attempting to drop a sacrifice bunt, which brought Chase Utley, a left-handed hitter, to the plate. Baker then made another move, removing Treinen for the left-handed Sammy Solis. Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts countered by pinch-hitting Carlos Ruiz for Utley. Solis was nearly as effective against righties as lefties this season, but Ruiz slapped a single off a diving Anthony Rendon’s glove at third base into left field to plate Grandal and give the Dodgers the lead.

Solis got Corey Seager to fly out to bring Justin Turner to the plate with two outs. Turner was the only right-handed batter in the Dodgers’ starting lineup, but he was significantly better against right-handed pitchers than southpaws this season; he batted .305 against right-handers and .209 against lefties. Yet Baker decided to take out Solis for right-hander Shawn Kelley anyway and Turner scalded the second pitch he saw, an 82-mph slider, over Trea Turner’s head in center field. Instead of playing it off the wall, Turner attempted to make the catch, but he couldn’t retreat fast enough and the ball bounced off the padding to no-man’s land. By the time Turner threw the ball in, the other Turner was at third base celebrating a two-run triple and 4-1 lead.

Meanwhile, Kelley was in pain, shaking his right arm after delivering an 82-mph slider. A crew, led by trainer Paul Lessard, bolted out of the Nationals’ dugout to check on Kelley, who is one of the few pitchers to ever successfully come back from a second Tommy John surgery. He walked off after a brief discussion, forcing Baker to turn to left-hander Oliver Perez, the sixth Nationals pitcher of the inning. Perez needed two pitches to retire Adrian Gonzalez and mercifully end Washington’s misery.

Stunned, the 43,936 in attendance, went silent. The electricity had vanished, but it quickly reappeared with a rally. Espinosa sparked it with a leadoff walk against left-hander Grant Dayton. Heisey, pinch-hitting for Jose Lobaton, then walloped an 0-2 fastball just over the left-field wall for a two-run home run, the first postseason pinch-hit homer in franchise history. Clint Robinson, who was double-switched in during the top half of the frame, lined a single to right field to trigger an unconventional decision by Roberts. With no outs in the seventh inning, Roberts went with his closer, Casey Jansen, to face Trea Turner.

The tactic proved effective, but not without some tense moments. After Trea Turner flew out, Bryce Harper lined a single to left field to push Joe Ross, a pitcher who entered to pinch-run for Robinson, to third base. With runners at the corners, Harper stole second base as Jayson Werth, the ensuing batter, struck out swinging for the second out. Harper’s theft vacated first base and Roberts chose to intentionally walk Murphy to load the bases for Anthony Rendon, who had been retired in his first three plate appearances, all with at least one runner on base. Rendon failed to come through again, whiffing at a 95-mph cutter for strike three.

Jansen lasted until the ninth inning, when he struck out Trea Turner, but surrendered back-to-back walks to Bryce Harper and Werth. With Jansen’s pitch count at a career-high 51, Roberts summoned Clayton Kershaw, whom Roberts said before the game wasn’t available, to face Murphy. Kershaw got Murphy to pop out. Washington’s season was then placed on rookie Wilmer Difo’s shoulders. He struck out on a curveball in the dirt and a celebration ensued.

Categories: Sports

Leave a Reply