That what’s happened once nine innings were added up. The Nationals beat the Dodgers, 4-2, because Strasburg went through their order like a wrecking ball and a makeshift bullpen held on. Strasburg retired the first 14 batters he faced. He struck out 10, just two days after throwing 34 pitches in the wild-card game, and the victory was finished off by Doolittle, Scherzer and Hudson out of the bullpen. Manager Dave Martinez left nothing to chance. He may have hooked Scherzer in time to still start him in Washington on Sunday, though that remains to be seen.
It all helped the Nationals head home with a series split in hand.
When they arrived Friday, when they took stock of their series-opening loss — just two hits, 13 strikeouts, another bullpen implosion — they could take comfort in a simple fact: It was only one game. It didn’t end their season. It stung, and it wasn’t pretty, and they certainly tightened up, but there was a reason to breathe a little. Strasburg’s been their anchor. And, until the Dodgers scored off him in the sixth, he had not allowed a run in 23 consecutive postseason innings.
But the Nationals had immediately given him a lead to protect. They loaded the bases in the first inning before Howie Kendrick singled in Trea Turner. But then they wilted. Ryan Zimmerman popped out on a first-pitch fastball. Kurt Suzuki struck out in a full count, on Kershaw’s low-and-in slider, and those at-bats could have haunted Washington later. Instead, in the next inning, the Nationals rallied for two more runs with a single from Adam Eaton single and Anthony Rendon’s double off the left-center wall.
That gave Strasburg a three-run cushion to protect. That gave their dugout, quiet for most of Thursday evening, a reason to bang on the padded railing and pass around high-fives. The big remaining question was how far Strasburg could go and how Martinez would use his bullpen. In Game 1, the Dodgers feasted against Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland. It made it clear that Martinez, who has dealt with a flaky bullpen all season, carried two big problems into these playoffs: There is a yawning gap between his rotation and trustworthy relievers. And he only has two of those in Hudson and Doolittle.
Yet first Strasburg cruised, one batter at a time, using 85 pitches to craft a work of art. He struck out two in the first. Kershaw was the first batter to hit something into the outfield, lining one to left with two outs in the third, but Juan Soto sprinted in to make a diving catch. Strasburg nodded, patting his glove with a closed fist, then bobbed his head as he disappeared down the tunnel.
It looked like there may be a slow beat playing in his head. Or maybe that’s just the zone he sinks into, as if the stadium were empty, as if all he had to do was choose the pitches his opponents swing at. As if throwing 14 curveballs to the first eight batters was routine, regular, something Strasburg really did by disregarding counts and putting the entire night on his terms.
Strasburg wound up throwing 34 curveballs to a team that crushes heat. He threw more than ever this season, right around 30 percent of his total pitches, because his velocity is lower and his career is into its back half. But his effectiveness hasn’t wavered. This only showed that it may be sloping still.
Will Smith broke up Strasburg’s perfect game with two outs in the fifth. Justin Turner broke up his shutout an inning later. Then Martinez made the critical decision of bringing Doolittle in from the bullpen when Strasburg. Doolittle allowed a solo homer to Max Muncy in the seventh. That shaved the Nationals lead down to one. They restored it on Asdrúbal Cabrera’s RBI single in the next half.
Then Martinez made the off-the-wall decision of plugging in Scherzer for the eighth. Martinez announced Friday afternoon that Scherzer would start Game 3 in Washington on Sunday. Now here he was in the eighth, stalking his way through the infield grass, soon striking out the side on 14 pitches that seemed allergic to wood. Scherzer shook Martinez’s hand in the dugout. He more so slapped it and held on. He was finished. He paced as the rest unfolded, hands on his hips, and Hudson stranded the bases loaded in a roller-coaster ninth.
The Nationals finally chose to live or die with their small group of top arms. The result gave them a pulse.
Ninth inning (Nationals 4, Dodgers 2)
Daniel Hudson didn’t want to be the Nationals closer. He repeated this September, as he filled in the role when Sean Doolittle was out, that they needed Doolittle in the ninth inning to get where they needed to go. He admitted the ninth “a different animal” and mentioned how, when he’s out there, “stuff seems to go haywire.”That seems an accurate summary of what happened in Dodger Stadium on Friday night. Hudson entered with a simple job: Protect a two-run lead in a must-win game on the road against the heart of one of baseball’s best lineups. No pressure. He got off to a shaky start, allowing a ground-rule double to the leadoff hitter, Justin Turner. He struck out A.J. Pollock and got Cody Bellinger to pop out — he looked like he might escape. Then the Nationals intentionally walked Max Muncy to bring the winning run to the plate. Then Hudson unintentionally walked Will Smith to put the tying run about 180 feet away.Hudson topped 20 pitches as he battled Corey Seager. He threw seven straight fastballs away and Seager spoiled all but two, which were balls. Then catcher Kurt Suzuki went out to talk. This was the most important moment of the Nationals season. Hudson threw a slider. Seager swung through it. The Nationals tied the series.
The Nationals did nothing against Dodgers reliever Julio Urias in the ninth inning. The heart of the lineup couldn’t pad any insurance runs so it went to the bottom of the inning, where Daniel Hudson will enter to close out a two-run tie. The right-hander, acquired at the trade deadline, will face the Dodgers’ 2-3-4 hitters. That’s as high-leverage as it gets.
Eighth inning (Nationals 4, Dodgers 2)
The Nationals have a new setup man: Max Scherzer. The Nationals right-hander, the veteran who is still expected to start Game 3 on Sunday, came in for the eighth inning and struck out the side using mostly a fastball that touched 99 mph. This revolutionizes the Nationals bullpen because, with only two relievers Manager Dave Martinez can trust, he turned to a starter on his regular side-session day for answers. If Martinez commits to this strategy, it could unlocked the Nationals bullpen problem and give them their best arms in games late, like the 2018 Boston Red Sox did on their run to the World Series title. This strategy carries risks but, at least for now, got the Nationals through innings with its bullpen unscathed. That’s progress.
The Nationals got their insurance run. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a double and the Nationals threatened further when Kurt Suzuki walked. Victor Robles laid down a sacrifice bunt but hurt himself running to first and later came out of the game. (Michael A. Taylor ultimately replaced him in center.) The Nationals scratched a run across on an RBI single from Asdrubal Cabrera but Cabrera ran into an out on the base paths and handcuffed the Nationals offense. They couldn’t push anymore runs across, but it didn’t matter. They’d expanded the lead to 4-2.
Seventh inning (Nationals 3, Dodgers 2)
Stephen Strasburg departed after 85 pitches and six innings of one-run ball and, by all accounts, it was everything the Nationals could have asked for on two days rest. Sean Doolittle started strong, striking out NL MVP favorite Cody Bellinger, but allowed a moonshot home run to right on the next pitch. He struck out Will Smith and popped out Corey Seager to escape, but the damage was done. The Dodgers pulled to within one. The Nationals bullpen needs six more outs — and they might call on starter Max Scherzer, who was warming in the bullpen on the day regularly scheduled for his side session anyway.
The Nationals pushed again, putting the first two runners on, but they again had nothing to show for it. Anthony Rendon struck out and, while Juan Soto showed progress in Round 2 of his lefty-lefty battle against Dodgers reliever Adam Kolarek, he still grounded out. The Dodgers brought in right-hander Dustin May to retire Howie Kendrick and the Nationals never pushed across the insurance run they desperately need with their bullpen door opening and Sean Doolittle coming out in the seventh to replace Stephen Strasburg.
Sixth inning (Nationals 3, Dodgers 1)
The Dodgers finally got to Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals right-hander allowed a single to pinch-hitter Matt Beaty, then a double to center by Joc Pederson and the Dodgers had runners at second and third with one out. Then Justin Turner hit a sacrifice fly to right, and Beaty scored. The Dodgers seemed ready to do more damage but Strasburg caught a rocket from A.J. Pollock back to him to escape the inning.
Clayton Kershaw emptied out the tank in sixth and, while he allowed a two-out double to Victor Robles, he sailed around it by getting a weak tap out in front of the plate by Stephen Strasburg to end the inning. Kershaw wanted to pitch his way at first, throwing so many fastballs in the first two frames, but once he relied on his breaking balls, the left-hander cruised through four scoreless innings.
Fifth inning (Nationals 3, Dodgers 0)
Stephen Strasburg’s no-hitter and perfect game are over. Dodgers catcher Will Smith started the series 0-for-6 but he poked an 89 mph change-up at the bottom of the zone into left-center field for a single. It was, however, not the start of something. Corey Seager struck out on a change-up to end the frame.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after Clayton Kershaw’s rough first two innings he wanted to see more breaking balls. This inning typified those adjustments. Kershaw threw 44 pitches in the first two innings (21 fastballs) and 17 in the 5th (two fastballs). Kershaw has now retired 10 of the last 11 Nationals he’s faced and the only hit he allowed, a single to Anthony Rendon, was a bloop which fell just fair down the right-field line.
Fourth inning (Nationals 3, Dodgers 0)
Stephen Strasburg is perfect through four. He’s dominated the Dodgers and the only ball he’s allowed to leave the outfield, a liner to left by Clayton Kershaw, ended up harmless because of Juan Soto’s dive. Strasburg has struck out half of the batter’s he’s faced and will throw his curveball in any count. A.J. Pollock, the one who was supposed to crush the right-hander, has fanned twice.
The Nationals went down in order again as Clayton Kershaw settled in. Kershaw has relied less on his fastball and more on his slider as he’s retired the last seven Nationals. It’s something Manager Dave Roberts said he wanted Kershaw to do — more breaking ball — after his rough go of it through the first two frames.
Third inning (Nationals 3, Dodgers 0)
Stephen Strasburg looked as filthy as he has all night in the third. He got two strikeouts to start the frame — both on curveballs — and then let his defense take of care of him for the final out. Juan Soto made a diving catch in left he probably wouldn’t have made earlier this season to prevent the Dodgers first hit.
Clayton Kershaw sailed through his first 1-2-3 inning of the night, but concern still remained for the Dodgers left-hander. Howie Kendrick’s first out of the inning took center fielder Cody Bellinger to the warning track and Kershaw is getting hit hard. His average exit velocity this season was 87.2 mph, but the Nationals are at 98.3 mph through three innings.
Second inning (Nationals 3, Dodgers 0)
Stephen Strasburg dispatched the Dodgers again in order. He got a groundout, a strikeout and a groundout — and he has not allowed a ball to leave the infield yet. The only question now is how long he can go, after pitching in his first-ever relief appearance on Tuesday night.
The Nationals looked like they were going to strand their leadoff runner. They got two quick outs and Adam Eaton fell down to Clayton Kershaw in a two-strike count. Then Eaton flipped a fastball into left field. Then Anthony Rendon doubled on a fastball down the pipe. The Nationals offense, which looked listless Thursday night, built a 3-0 lead at the end of the second and sent Kershaw to the dugout with his head down.
First inning (Nationals 1, Dodgers 0)
If Stephen Strasburg looked tired from his three scoreless innings of relief Tuesday, he didn’t show it. The Nationals starter cruised through the first inning on 13 pitches, and he made two Dodgers hitters — Joc Pederson and A.J. Pollock — look silly on strikeouts with a change-up and curveball, respectively.
The Nationals wasted no time doing what they couldn’t in Game 1 and scored in the first inning. Howie Kendrick snaked a seeing-eye single through the left side to end the Dodgers pitchers’ scoreless streak at 33 innings. Yet, with the bases loaded and one out, they couldn’t capitalize further. Ryan Zimmerman popped out to first and Kurt Suzuki struck out. The frustration was furthered by Adam Eaton giving an out away earlier in the inning by popping a bunt attempt to third.
How to watch
Los Angeles Dodgers lead Washington Nationals, 1-0
Where: Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Starting pitchers: Stephen Strasburg (18-6, 3.32 ERA) vs. Clayton Kershaw (16-5, 3.03 ERA).
The Nationals are starting Strasburg three days after he tossed three crucial, scoreless innings in his first career relief appearance to set up a stunning comeback against the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card game. It’s unclear how much Strasburg will have in the tank after he threw 34 pitches on Tuesday, in addition to his normal pregame routine. (Strasburg was on regular rest Tuesday.) This is a sharp departure from the routine Manager Dave Martinez credited for keying one of the most dominant and durable seasons of the pitcher’s career. It’s unclear how Strasburg will respond to the challenge, but the Nationals need him to rise to the occasion. The Dodgers are starting Clayton Kershaw, a dominant force in his own right and the man who closed out Game 5 against the Nats in the 2016 NLDS.
The biggest question for Washington is how long Strasburg can go. The best chance the Nationals have is if he goes at least seven innings, because the middle relief showed itself Thursday night as an existential threat to this season. If a left-handed hitter comes up in a crucial situation before the eighth inning, will Martinez deploy his only left-handed reliever, Sean Doolittle? Or will he trust veteran right-hander Fernando Rodney again? That, and the quiet bats, are the most important question marks headed into Friday night. The continued viability of the Nationals’ season might depend on the answers.
Dave Martinez opens up on recent health issues. “I was so, so scared,” the Nationals manager said in an interview Saturday, offering his most detailed public account to date of the health scare two weeks ago. Martinez’s description revealed the episode was far more alarming than previously known. There were tears in his eyes. “I started thinking about my kids, my family, my players, this team,” he said. “And then I thought: ‘Man, I am going to let so many people down.’ ” (Read more)
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