The Nationals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 6-1, on Monday night to set up a deciding Game 5 in Los Angeles on Wednesday, and they pulled it off in large part because of a five-batter sequence in the fifth inning. What started with a Trea Turner single and ended with the Zimmerman homer illustrated what drove their offense all season.
The Nationals thrived on contact. They walked a lot and seldom struck out. They sacrificed and bunted and came to represent much of what’s uncommon in the analytics age. The approach embodied Manager Dave Martinez’s aggressive philosophy, and it’s a sizable reason they’re tied in this National League Division Series despite being out-homered 7-2.
“To play chess a little bit and get your pieces set up in order to strike. …” Eaton said of the fifth inning, grinning as he trailed off. “It’s the beauty of baseball. It’s the little things — walks here, bunts here.”
The bullpen door swung open in the fifth. The Dodgers summoned left-hander Julio Urías to maintain a 1-1 tie. Urías had baffled the Nationals in Games 2 and 3, yielding just one hit in three innings, but the hitters believed they had a chance to break through. They were seeing the 23-year-old for the third time in four days.
Urías attacked Turner, the leadoff hitter, up and away, just as he had in Game 3. The shortstop worked a 3-1 count and expected a change-up in the strike zone because Urías had thrown him one several times before, regardless of the situation. But Urías surprised him. The left-hander threw a fifth straight fastball, and this one wasn’t headed for the same spot. It ran inside, belt-high and middle-in. Turner smacked it into left field.
“It was a mistake,” Turner said. “He tried going away again and missed.”
Eaton knew he needed a safe bunt this time. He had tried to push-bunt in Game 1, to effectively slap the ball over the head of Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, but it resulted in a soft popup. Eaton decided to be aggressive and square early because he wanted time to adjust if Urías threw his slider or curveball. Eaton put his face directly behind the barrel so he could watch the spin and resolved that if he screwed up and fouled the ball off, “it better hit me in the face.”
He guessed right. Urías threw a high, 82-mph slider, and though it was “awkward,” Eaton rolled the ball down the third base line. Justin Turner threw to first as Trea Turner scooted to second.
Anthony Rendon didn’t go to the plate looking for a specific pitch or location. He prepared for the fastball, because it’s easier to slow down than catch up. He realized on the first pitch, a curveball in the dirt, that he was recognizing Urías’s pitches better out of his hand than he had in previous at-bats, perhaps because of familiarity. The second pitch, a 96-mph fastball, ran inside and belt-high in almost the same spot Urías missed against Turner. Rendon slapped it into left field, and Turner sprinted home from second to give the Nationals a lead they never relinquished.
“Keep the line moving,” Rendon said, smiling.
Urías fell behind Juan Soto 2-0, but the young outfielder got under a slider up in the zone, practically where Eaton had bunted, and popped out to third base. Soto tossed his bat in frustration. He hadn’t moved anyone.
Howie Kendrick wanted to see whether Urías could regain his command, so he watched a curveball sail over the heart of the plate for strike one. The young left-hander threw to first twice, seemingly to get his timing as much as check on Rendon, who wasn’t a base-stealing threat. Kendrick watched a fastball miss high, and when Urías missed his spot on the next pitch, he pounced. The fastball ran inside, about belt-high but this time off the plate. Kendrick stayed through the ball and knocked it into center field while Rendon scampered to third.
“Mine was a good pitch by him actually,” Kendrick said. “I was just able to get enough of the barrel there.”
He shrugged, adding, “Sometimes that happens.”
The bullpen door opened again. Pedro Báez trotted in as Urías walked to the dugout. Urías went down to the clubhouse to watch video and later lamented that, though he felt 100 percent, his stuff didn’t look like it.
“I missed a lot of pitches,” he said through a team interpreter. “And I paid the price."
The young left-hander watched from the dugout as Báez’s second pitch, a 96-mph fastball, missed the zone but not Zimmerman’s bat. The original National crushed a moonshot to center field. The crowd at Nationals Park stood and roared as the ball left the yard, a glimpse of the franchise’s past and what it hopes for the future. Zimmerman rounded the bases and slapped five with Rendon and Kendrick when he stepped on home plate.
His home run will be remembered, and who was on base quickly forgotten. But what made this home run important on the scoreboard, what gave the Nationals the lead and critical insurance runs, were the plate appearances before.
Staff writer Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed reporting to this story.