LOS ANGELES — The phrase they keep repeating is “it never feels like we’re out of it,” a staple of the baseball player’s postgame interview, one heard especially often from Washington Nationals this season. Corny, right? Maybe so. A phrase like that is roughly the equivalent of a pitcher saying “I could have gone one more” when his manager took him out after 115 pitches. Now and then, it’s true. More often than not, it’s just the polite thing to say.
But the thing with these Nationals, a win away from the first National League Championship Series in team history, is that they never do feel entirely out of it. They now have two come-from-behind wins in these playoffs, after never having one before. They scored more runs Monday (eight) than they have in any postseason game in team history, a small sample size, but a telling one. With experienced postseason players up and down their lineup, and almost all of them looking comfortable, the Nationals have gotten to the Dodgers’ best — Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenley Jansen — for at least three runs each in consecutive games.
“We’re always in a game. We’re never out of it,” said Jayson Werth, who finished Monday a triple shy of the cycle with one of the longest home runs a National has hit this season. “Even when we’re behind, we can tack on runs when we’re ahead or we can get some runs when we’re behind.”
As they built a two-games-to-one lead over the Dodgers this week, Werth and other members of the Nationals offense looked comfortable and largely unaffected by the stage. Werth should be used to it by now, as Monday was his 56th career postseason game.
The 450-foot home run he tried to hit out of Dodger Stadium in the ninth inning was his 15th career postseason home run — tied with Babe Ruth for 11th all-time. He is 5 for 12 so far in this series with a 1.333 OPS, first in the third spot in the lineup for the first two games, then in the second spot for Game 3. Werth saw a league-leading 4.60 pitches per plate appearance this season, and has continued to take his time between pitches during October, giving his teammates time to see unfamiliar pitchers, and taking the pace out of the hands of eager opponents.
“Ever since Dusty moved me into the 2-hole, I just felt like my job is to get on base for the animals behind me. I’m just focused on getting on base and scoring runs and having good at-bats and making the pitcher work,” Werth said. “That’s pretty much been my game my whole career, even before I started playing professionally. Just trying to be me.”
Daniel Murphy, who went 0 for 4 Monday with one tough-luck line drive to left, has also continued to be himself in these playoffs. He got the Nationals’ first hit of the postseason when he took Kershaw up the middle in Game 1. He got the Nationals’ first hit off Hill’s curveball when he stayed on it for a single in Game 2, one of three hits Murphy delivered that day.
In his third postseason, Bryce Harper has shown signs of under-control revival, hitting the ball the opposite way and drawing his walks in the process. He reached base three times Monday, with two walks and a base hit ripped to right. He has three hits in this series, two hard line drives to the opposite field and one first-pitch rope to right.
Anthony Rendon, in his second playoff chance, has shined as quietly as he did in the second half. Rendon hit .368 in his first playoff appearance in 2014. This time, relied on more for RBI with Wilson Ramos out, Rendon has the Nationals’ biggest hit in Games 1 and 3 and an .808 OPS. Rendon hit .283 with 13 homers and 55 RBI in the last 80 games of the regular season.
“I’m not sure [why]. I guess if I knew the answer to that, it wouldn’t have just been the last 80 or 90 games. It would have been the whole 162,” said Rendon, who would have hit more than 25 homers and surpassed 100 RBI had he harnessed the secret.
“I think just trying to stay within myself, trying not to do too much, and just trying to put the barrel on the ball like I’ve been taught ever since I was younger. I guess just staying within myself.”
Ryan Zimmerman, a part of every Nationals season until now, has looked better in these three games than he did late in the season. He is 5 for 11 with two RBI and at least one hit in all three games. After being one of the least productive regulars in baseball in September, Zimmerman seems more in control of the strike zone now — more settled when it counts most.
“It’s no fun not helping. It’s been a frustrating year,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve talked about it. Everyone’s talked about it to me. The only thing you can do is keep working, keep going. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you. You just got to go out there and just continue to have confidence in yourself. I feel good right now and hopefully I can keep that going.”
Jose Lobaton, who now has two massive playoff home runs on his résumé, chipped in at least one hit in each of his two starts, too. The only struggling playoff veteran is Danny Espinosa, who is now 1 for 26 with 14 strikeouts in his three-series playoff career. But by and large, with Trea Turner adapting to the Dodgers’ breaking-ball heavy approach, the Nationals veterans have produced — if not hits, then long, calm at-bats against some of the tougher pitchers in baseball.
These Nationals have not always had positive playoff experiences. But even the painful ones left them more seasoned than before, never quite out of an at-bat, and therefore never quite out of a game so far.
“This team is battle-tested and playoff-tested,” Werth said. “We know what we need to do. I mean, it’s a young team, but it’s not a young team. We’ve got a lot of guys that have played in a lot of games, so there’s not a lot that needs to be said.”