by Jesse Dougherty

Here came Patrick Corbin, gliding across the outfield grass, the Washington Nationals' latest escape plan resting squarely on his left arm.

They needed 12 more outs against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday night. They needed Corbin, the third ace of their stacked rotation, the pitcher they signed to a huge contract last winter, to get at least three of them. But he couldn’t. He instead gave up a two-run double, and then he gave up another, and then the Dodgers beat the Nationals, 10-4, because everything went sideways in that sixth inning. Six runs stained Corbin’s final line. That only stung more once Washington made a small push that couldn’t cover the bullpen’s mess. The Nationals now face elimination in Game 4 at Nationals Park on Monday.

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Corbin was, in theory, brought to Washington for moments such as this. Not necessarily a relief appearance — and not necessarily a relief appearance in the guts of the National League Division Series — but for whenever the stakes were climbing. That was now.

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And then now proved too much for him.

“It just stinks,” Corbin said, his voice lowered a bit, his locker surrounded by two dozen reporters for the wrong reasons. “I feel like I let these guys down."

The Nationals' first critical decision arrived at the onset of this game. They could have pushed Max Scherzer to start, as previously scheduled, even after he threw 14 pitches out of the bullpen in a Game 2 victory on Friday. It was the riskier option. It also fit with Washington's willingness to do anything for an edge. But the calculations still led Scherzer and Manager Dave Martinez to restraint. Scherzer told Martinez that the Nationals would get his best after one more day of rest. Martinez agreed, and with that he shifted to 35-year-old Aníbal Sánchez.

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And Sánchez was excellent until Max Muncy tagged him for a towering, two-out home run in the fifth. He otherwise struck out nine in five innings. The Nationals still had the lead when Sánchez exited, thanks to a two-run homer from Juan Soto in the first, but there were still four innings to pitch. Corbin was the first reliever to loosen. It didn't matter that he had thrown six innings and 107 pitches just three days earlier.

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This was a continuation of the Nationals’ insistence on hiding their middle relievers at all costs. Martinez has made it clear that he trusts six pitchers on his roster: Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sánchez and relievers Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle. That’s it. That’s why Martinez brought in Scherzer for the eighth inning of Game 2. And that’s why Corbin became the latest starter to moonlight in the bullpen. It seemed conceivable, at least for a moment, that a combination of Corbin, Doolittle and Hudson could finish the game. Then the experiment disintegrated in Corbin’s hands.

The meat of the Dodgers' order was waiting for Corbin. His slider was off. He issued a leadoff single to Cody Bellinger, who had been hitless in the series, before settling the danger with back-to-back strikeouts. He just couldn't find his way out of the woods.

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“You don't have that time to set your pitches up going into it,” catcher Yan Gomes said of Corbin making a relief appearance instead of starting. “They already knew what we were going with, and they had some really good at-bats against us."

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Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts had set up his lineup with the thought of Corbin entering at some point. Roberts was fine with pinch-hitting for two of his lefties — there were five in his original order — starting when he lifted Gavin Lux for David Freese. Freese dribbled a single through the right side of the infield. That brought up Russell Martin, who hit .220 this season, and he rocked a low slider into the left-center gap.

Then Corbin lost control. He walked Chris Taylor with four erratic pitches. He let Enrique Hernández stretch the lead with a second two-run double that restarted the carousel around the bases. Hernández was pinch-hitting for the left-handed Joc Pederson. The rally put the Dodgers' depth on full display. The doubles came on Corbin's slider, his best pitch but a pitch that didn't have its usual break when he most needed it to.

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His final act of the night was standing on the mound while the Nationals intentionally walked Muncy. He then exited the field. The crowd quieted around him after 35 fateful pitches, and that's when Justin Turner launched a three-run homer off Wander Suero. All seven of the Dodgers' sixth-inning runs came with two outs and two strikes. That's how slim the Nationals' margin for error was. That's what separates winners from losers in October.

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“We were at a good spot in the lineup where we thought Corbin could get through it,” Martinez said. “And his stuff was good … He had every hitter 0-2. He just couldn’t finish."

They turned to Corbin — and Scherzer two nights earlier — to avoid using any of Suero, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland or Tanner Rainey in big spots. Strickland later gave up a two-run homer to Martin in the ninth. That was the ninth homer he has allowed in 13 career postseason innings. That was more evidence of why there was such an outsize effort to hide them in the first place. But it was too late for the Nationals to reverse course. They tried to use Corbin as a Band-Aid. It didn't work. They will now need a new plan Monday, facing elimination, figuring it will be Scherzer until he has absolutely nothing left.

Only their season will depend on it.

Inning-by-inning recap

by Sam Fortier

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Ninth inning (Dodgers 10, Nationals 4):

The Nationals cannot use Hunter Strickland in any non-blowout situations. The veteran right-hander, acquired at the trade deadline to fortify the bullpen, allowed his third home run in two innings of NLDS work. The first two were explainable — two Dodgers lefties against Strickland, who has one of the major league’s worst rates against left-handed hitters. But this one wasn’t. Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, a right-handed hitter, launched a 97-mph Strickland fastball over the left-field bullpen for a two-run home run.

The Nationals have come back from down six runs in the ninth inning before. They did it just last month. But that was a once-in-a-lifetime come back, and the Nationals couldn’t repeat it against the Dodgers. Matt Adams grounded out and the game was over.

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Eighth inning (Dodgers 8, Nationals 4):

Tanner Rainey didn’t bring Fernando Rodney-level blood-pressure spikes, but he allowed a single and threw a wild pitch before escaping the eighth inning scoreless.

Juan Soto looked like he was making progress. The Dodgers’ lefty specialist, Adam Kolarek, had struck him out on three pitches in Game 1. Soto battled him through a nine-pitch at-bat before grounding out in Game 2. This time, it seemed like Soto might manage a hit, but he did not, and he ultimately struck out on six pitches in the third round. This was emblematic of the Nationals’ team itself on Sunday night, and the rest of the inning went quietly. Suddenly, the Nationals had three outs to get at least four runs.

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Seventh inning (Dodgers 8, Nationals 4):

The Fernando Rodney Experience was in full effect. He pitched a scoreless inning — only after loading the bases and getting to a full-count on the hottest hitter of this series, Max Muncy. But he departed the mound having held the deficit at four runs and that is all you could say about that.

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Adam Eaton shot a two-out single through the right side but it was the only offense the Nationals got in the seventh. Anthony Rendon popped out to end the frame and his team had six outs to jump-start another one of the comebacks that had defined its season.

Sixth inning (Dodgers 8, Nationals 4):

It played out exactly how the Nationals wanted it to: Aníbal Sánchez gave his team five innings of one-run ball. Two of the Dodgers best left-handed hitters were coming up. The Nationals countered with Patrick Corbin and everything seemed poised for them to slam the door and take the series lead. Then everything fell apart.

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Corbin allowed Cody Bellinger’s first hit of the series, a single flipped to right. He struck out the next two and seemed ready to hit the escape hatch. But pinch-hitter David Freese singled and Russell Martin gave the Dodgers the lead for the first time since Game 1 with a crushing double into the left-center field gap. Pinch-hitter Chris Taylor walked and the next one, Kike Hernández, hit another two-run double. Corbin walked off the mound with his team in grave trouble.

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The Nationals went to Wander Suero, an inconsistent right-hander Dave Martinez saw potential in throughout the season. He promptly served up a two-run home run to Justin Turner. The nightmare finally ended when Corey Seager bounced out to second.

The Nationals half of the sixth inning won’t be remembered for their charging comeback. It won’t be remembered for Joe Kelly’s erratic command. It’ll be remembered for the costliest base-running mistake in Nationals Park this season. With no one out, Asdrubal Cabrera flew out to right field and Juan Soto scampered home. The sacrifice fly looked as though it’d bring the Nationals to within four and give them a good chance with Michael A. Taylor coming to the plate. But then Howie Kendrick broke late for third. The Dodgers cut off the throw home trying to get Soto and redirected to third, where Justin Turner was waiting to tag Kendrick out. It was the latest in a series of uncharacteristic mistakes from Kendrick (two errors in Game 1) which greatly hurt the Nationals. The rally, one batter later when Taylor popped out, was over.

Fifth inning (Nationals 2, Dodgers 1):

The Nationals couldn’t have asked for much more. Aníbal Sánchez finally hiccuped in the fifth, a long solo home run from Max Muncy which splashed down deep in the right-center field bleachers, but he’d delivered as much as the Nationals could have hoped. His five innings of one-run ball were as low-leverage as possible against a potent Dodgers lineup. The Nationals will likely hit for him here — Sánchez is due up third — and turn to Patrick Corbin.

The Nationals couldn’t make anything of a one-out Michael A. Taylor single, so they’ll go to the bottom of the sixth looking for 12 outs from their bullpen. Patrick Corbin will come on to face two of the team’s best left-handed hitters, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager, and try to get at least three. The Nationals are clinging to the one-run lead and now the biggest question left is whether the extra three outs comes from Corbin (a starter) or Hudson (a former starter with length).

Fourth inning (Nationals 2, Dodgers 0):

Aníbal Sánchez had eight or more strikeouts in two of his 30 starts this season. He has eight through four innings against the Dodgers. He’s continued an unexpected level of dominance against Dodger hitters by employing the same low-70s change-up which he’s had throughout the season. He’s at 70 pitches and, if he can get the Nationals through the sixth, they can lean on their bullpen for the final nine outs.

Anthony Rendon singled. Juan Soto singled. The Nationals broke up Hyun-jin Ryu’s rhythm and seemed poised to add some insurance runs. Then Howie Kendrick flew out to left and Kurt Suzuki bounced into an inning-ending double play. The Nationals threatened but did no more.

Third inning (Nationals 2, Dodgers 0):

Nationals Manager Dave Martinez started Brian Dozier at second base because he liked the improved defense behind a groundball pitcher. Little did he know Aníbal Sánchez is no longer a groundball pitcher. The veteran right-hander struck out Joc Pederson to start the inning — his fifth straight punch out. He got into trouble with a two-out double from Justin Turner but escaped right away with a lazy flyball from Cody Bellinger, who’s now 0 for 8 with five strikeouts and two walks this series.

The Nationals went down in order for the second inning in a row with a strikeout, groundout and lineout. This development only further stresses the importance of the Nationals offensive outburst in the first. They got two runs off Hyun-jin Ryu, as many as you can reasonably expect off him, and everything else will be gravy.

Second inning (Nationals 2, Dodgers 0):

The Dodgers were one of the hardest teams in the majors to strike out this season. They averaged a little more than eight per game. Well, Aníbal Sánchez settled down from a rocky first and fanned the bottom of the order with change-ups and cutters. The right-hander looks locked in now.

The Nationals, after breaking through in the first, went in order in the second. Kurt Suzuki swung through an 83-mph change-up to strike out and Brian Dozier watched one go by for a strikeout of his own in his first at-bat of the series. Michael A. Taylor, starting in place of an injured Victor Robles, flew out to center.

First inning (Nationals 2, Dodgers 0):

To start the night, Aníbal Sánchez worked his way into a jam in the first inning against the Dodgers — just as he did back on July 26, in his only other start against them this season in Nationals Park. Sánchez walked two and allowed a single before locking in to strike out A.J. Pollock with a 71-mph butterfly change-up to escape. Nationals Park got loud, and the team on the field hopes Sánchez can repeat the dominance from July 26 too, when he later retired 20 Dodgers in a row.

Juan Soto electrified Nationals Park in the top of the first with a deep home run to center that Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger could only stop and watch as it sailed over the wall in center field.

Soto’s home run not only gave the Nationals the lead but cemented the young outfielder’s place in postseason history. The dinger made the 20-year-old only the eighth player under the age of 21 to homer in a playoff game in MLB history, according to Baseball Reference: Miguel Cabrera (4), Mickey Mantle (2), Andruw Jones (2), Rafael Devers (2), Manny Machado (1), Bryce Harper (1) and Ronald Acuna Jr. (1)

It was a huge start for the Nationals because Hyun-Jin Ryu allowed two or fewer runs in 23 of his 29 starts this season.

Pregame:

7:43 p.m.: The Nationals public-address system let loose a name it’s done thousands of times before: “Ryannnnn Zimmerm-mannnnn!” Nationals Park lost it. He wasn’t in the starting lineup, he hasn’t delivered a clutch hit this series or done something to change the trajectory of the season, but the crowd knew that every day cheering him might be their last, due to his uncertain contract. So, they roared for the franchise cornerstone, roared for him louder than anyone but maybe star pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who’s been nails in the playoffs. It was a moment that made you remember what Nationals Park could be like, a hint of what it could be if this game goes as the Nationals hope it might.

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