By Jesse Dougherty

LOS ANGELES — If Howie Kendrick plants his glove on the dirt, if his reaction is just a twitch or two quicker, if he does anything to keep that rocketed baseball in front of him, then maybe the final innings unfold a little bit differently for the Washington Nationals.

But Kendrick’s mitt didn’t get there in time. Instead, in the fifth inning, in one of the biggest moments of Game 1 of the National League Division Series, a 96-mph grounder slipped through his legs and into right field to gift the Los Angeles Dodgers a precious second run Thursday night. Washington eventually fell to the Dodgers, 6-0, in a defeat that had all the makings of a missed opportunity.

“We didn’t play very well today,” Manager Dave Martinez said, putting it bluntly, passing the blame around to both his offense and pitching staff. “Walked a lot of guys. Chased a lot of bad pitches.”

The Nationals got a gutsy outing from Patrick Corbin despite a shaky first and despite the many jams he navigated in six innings. But strong starting pitching needs to be complemented. It can’t win games by itself. Washington instead got shoddy defense from Kendrick, their 36-year-old first baseman, and managed just two hits against Walker Buehler and the Dodgers’ bullpen.

Kendrick finished with two errors and could have been charged with a third. The fifth-inning miscue doubled a one-run deficit, and after Fernando Rodney allowed two more in the seventh, the Nationals had buried themselves. Then Hunter Strickland allowed two solo homers in the eighth to make it seem as if Corbin never pitched in the first place.

“Pat, I feel bad for Pat,” Kendrick said. “He threw a heck of game, too. A couple mistakes on my behalf out there. It’s part of the game. But you never want to let your teammates down.”

This goes back to Dec. 4, 2018, to the first days of a busy offseason, to when the Nationals signed Corbin to a six-year deal worth $140 million. The move added Corbin to a rotation already headlined by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. It strengthened Washington’s years-long commitment to building a contender through starting pitching. And it soon became one of the three reasons the Nationals always believed they could excel in this exact playoff matchup.

They just had to get here. They just had to stare down a season-ending defeat, with four outs to go against the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card game, and have 20-year-old Juan Soto lift them onto a plane to Los Angeles. Soto’s single is what pushed the Nationals deeper into October, for at least a few more days, for a chance to knock off the 106-win Dodgers. Then the rotation grabbed the torch.

But Corbin’s first postseason appearance didn’t begin how he wanted. Kendrick and the bullpen later made sure it wouldn’t end how Corbin wanted, either. Corbin walked four batters because he couldn’t locate his slider in the first. The Dodgers, in turn, took an early lead without putting the ball in play. He got up to 31 pitches, a yawning first-inning total, yet limited the damage to one run by getting a grounder to first. The slow start was dangerous in one very clear way: Washington arrived in the postseason despite having the National League’s worst bullpen. Now it needed Corbin to go as deep as he could.

And while he did, working a one-two-three third, then wiggling out of trouble in the fourth, Buehler’s pitch count climbed even faster. The Dodgers’ starter issued three walks in the fourth but kept the Nationals off the scoreboard. He finished that inning at 76 pitches, outpacing Corbin for who would get hooked first, and that gave Washington a chance at challenging some of the Dodgers’ relievers.

But before that happened, before any reliever appeared, Kendrick’s second error let the Dodgers inch further ahead. His first one was inconsequential, on a Buehler grounder in the second inning, only costing Corbin few extra pitches as he settled in. The second one cost the Nationals a run and cast doubt over whether Kendrick should play first again in Game 2 on Friday.

“That’s going to happen in this game. Unfortunately it’s in the postseason,” Kendrick said of the error in the fifth. “But I wouldn’t change anything about how I tried to make that play.”

Kendrick has so often paced the Nationals with his bat this season. The 36-year-old hit .344 and posted the league’s best batting average in September. His defense was rock solid until he slipped in the second and again with two down in the fifth. He made one error in 304 field chances during the regular season. He then made two in five opportunities against the Dodgers. Those were etched into the box score. A third mistake came on a Corey Seager single that whizzed beneath his glove. Ryan Zimmerman looked on from the bench. Kendrick was soon there, too, standing among teammates between innings, his brows furrowed as he stared out at the field.

Corbin soon finished the sixth at 107 pitches. He struck out nine. He allowed two runs, just one of them earned, and was imperfect in giving the Nationals a puncher’s chance. But his effort wasn’t matched by the Nationals in the field or at the plate or out of the bullpen. And so a fragile winning formula, thought up last winter, tried and tested throughout the season, was entirely incomplete.

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Inning-by-inning recap

By Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Dodgers 6, Nationals 0)

The Nationals got a lead off double from Trea Turner, but even then, they couldn’t push him across. The Nationals bullpen and Patrick Corbin’s lack of sharpness were worrisome, but concerns about the offense are most pressing. The Nationals pitching is shaky as is, and without any run support, it’s untenable. The Nationals will get another shot on Friday night — but that’s against Clayton Kershaw.

Eighth inning (Dodgers 6, Nationals 0)

The Nationals bullpen has no answers. Hunter Strickland entered in the eighth and, trying to stopgap a 4-0 deficit, allowed two solo home runs to left-handed hitters. Strickland has the worst on-base-plus-slugging-percentage allowed to left-handed hitters this season (1.291), so while this wasn’t unexpected, it also highlighted the lack of left-handers the Nationals have in the bullpen beyond Sean Doolittle, who they’d like to save for the most high-leverage situations. The Nationals must solve this situation before it costs them the series.

The Nationals bats looked lost again in the eighth. Victor Robles struck out. Yan Gomes struck out for the third time. Gerardo Parra, the pinch-hitter, the spark of this team all season, bounced out harmlessly to first. The Nationals haven’t had a hit since the second and a base runner since the fourth. Their bullpen is a problem, but their offense might even be more so.

Seventh inning (Dodgers 4, Nationals 0)

The Nationals bullpen struck again. Tanner Rainey started the seventh but the Dodgers, impervious to his 100-mph heaters, chased him with a walk and single. Then Fernando Rodney entered and, despite having the second-worst numbers against left-handed hitters in the Nationals bullpen, got off to a positive start. He struck out probable NL MVP Cody Bellinger. But a left-hander hurt him two batters later when Max Muncy delivered a two-run single that pushed the Dodgers lead to 4-0. The Nationals bullpen is exploitable beyond Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle — and there are seemingly no answers.

The Nationals’ hitless streak reached its fifth inning. Adam Kolarek and Kenta Maeda combined to get all three Nationals in order, and the left-handed Kolarek struck out Juan Soto on three pitches. Soto took some ugly swings during the at-bat and it seems probable that Soto will see the reliever the Dodgers acquired to get left-handers out in the playoffs regularly throughout this series.

Sixth inning (Dodgers 2, Nationals 0)

Patrick Corbin struggled during the beginning and middle of his outing, but he ended it with a perfect sixth. He retired the side to polish off a night that, despite everything, ended with just two runs allowed (one earned) over six innings. The Nationals will likely go to the bullpen against the top of the Dodgers order in the seventh.

Walker Buehler looked on the edge of leaving the game in the fourth, when he consistently missed spots and walked three batters. Then he set down six Nationals in a row, including a breezy sixth which included a groundout, a strikeout and a lineout.

Fifth inning (Dodgers 2, Nationals 0)

The nicest way to describe Howie Kendrick at first base right now is liability. The Nationals veteran had made one error there in 304 chances this season, but he made his second in five chances Thursday night to let the Dodgers second run score. Los Angeles’ Max Muncy singled right through the wickets on Kendrick and Cody Bellinger, who walked earlier, raced in. Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton threw out Chris Taylor at the plate to keep the deficit at just two runs.

The Nationals could have had a chance to pinch-hit for Patrick Corbin if either Victor Robles or Yan Gomes got on base. But they did not. The Nationals went in order and Walker Buehler stretched his postseason scoreless streak to 15 innings dating back to last season’s World Series.

Fourth inning (Dodgers 1, Nationals 0)

Patrick Corbin continued his best Houdini impression in the fourth. He allowed hits to the first two hitters he faced then squirmed away without any damage. Corbin struck out Will Smith on a fastball, Walker Buehler on a foul bunt then got leadoff hitter A.J. Pollock to ground out to third.

The Nationals put together an inning full of nice at-bats, but then they ended it with their worst one. Asdrubal Cabrera swung through one Walker Buehler curveball and tapped the next one back to the mound to leave the bases loaded and the team in a 1-0 hole. The one consolation: Buehler is at 74 pitches through four innings.

Third inning (Dodgers 1, Nationals 0)

Patrick Corbin finally got the efficient inning he needed. The Nationals’ left-hander retired the heart of the Dodgers order in order with a line-out, strikeout and groundout. He’s at 58 pitches.

The Nationals are again struggling against an upper 90s fastball. Walker Buehler has five strikeouts in three innings, and he’s only allowed one hit. The Nationals start their second chance against him in the fourth.

Second inning (Dodgers 1, Nationals 0)

The Nationals need to help Patrick Corbin’s pitch count as much as they can following his taxing first, but a groundball rolled right under Howie Kendrick’s glove to let Walker Buehler reach. Luckily for Corbin, he dispatched A.J. Pollock quickly for a strikeout and David Freese flied out to right on the first pitch. He left the second having only thrown 13 pitches and at 44 overall.

Home-plate umpire Will Little will not win any popularity contests with the Nationals. Little rung up Howie Kendrick on a fastball low-and-away, the second National in as many innings to go down that way, and Kendrick stood at the plate to complain. The Nationals couldn’t make use of Juan Soto’s leadoff single as Asdrubal Cabrera lined into a double play.

First inning (Dodgers 1, Nationals 0)

Patrick Corbin had a disastrous start to his first-ever postseason game. He threw 31 pitches, most of them balls, and he walked four hitters — the last one, Max Muncy, walked in the first run of the series.

The trouble started early. Corbin committed an Original Sin of baseball: The leadoff walk. The left-hander unusually threw all fastballs too. He went back to what makes him successful against the next two hitters, David Freese and Justin Turner, and struck them both out with his slider which some consider the best pitch in the National League. The slider looks like a fastball out of Corbin’s hand and then, about 10 feet from the plate, drops off the table. It’s why so many batters this season, including Freese in the first inning, fan at something which ends up in the dirt.

But the slider out of the zone doesn’t play well when you can’t locate. Corbin got into a legitimate jam after he walked Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor to the load the bases. He walked Muncy too and, even though he got Corey Seager to ground out to end the inning, the damage was done.

On offense, the Nationals went in order in the first in a frame reminiscent of Tuesday’s wild-card game. Dodgers starter Walker Buehler came out hot, hitting 99 mph with his fastball, and he most notably attacked Trea Turner in what might be becoming a trend. When he got two strikes on the Nationals shortstop, he threw a fastball up and Turner expanded the zone, swinging through what would’ve otherwise been a ball. Josh Hader did it in the eighth inning of the wild-card game with the same pitch (a 98-plus mph fastball) in the same spot. The Nationals need Turner to remain disciplined in those situations.

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