Now, the season comes down to a do-or-die Game 4 on Monday night with Max Scherzer on the mound. If you’re going to go down swinging, at least the Nats are starting a big puncher.
“They’re such a good team. They put pressure on you. You have to ask so much of guys to beat this team,” said reliever Sean Doolittle, capsulizing the Nats’ huge problem and the lengths they have to go to — using star starters in relief to stay competitive. “This game was tough. But it only counts as one. We’re still alive.”
Washington has pulled out every unconventional scale-balancing trick it can to narrow the gap between itself and the back-to-back pennant winners from Los Angeles who won 106 games this season and might have tacked on more if needed. But it may not be enough. The Nats have shown resilience all year. But, right about now, after this thumping, they may feel as if they need a bomb shelter.
After a seven-run sixth-inning demolition of relievers Patrick Corbin and Wander Suero on Sunday night, turning a 2-1 Washington lead into an 8-2 deficit and an eventual defeat, the Dodgers need just one more win to end the Nats’ season.
In such dire straits, the Nats would ideally like to have Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, who led the NL in wins, lined up on sufficient rest for Game 4 and, if necessary, Game 5 back in Los Angeles. And it would also be helpful for both Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, the lone trusted relievers, to be rested and ready to support them.
And what do you know? All those conditions are now in place!
So, feel free to continue paying attention. Two-game winning streaks are not unheard of, even against superlative teams.
“Feels like we’ve been here before. We’re comfortable in this spot with our backs against the wall,” said Doolittle who, like Hudson, will be well-rested for Game 4 and Game 5, if necessary. “Max tomorrow. ‘Stay in the fight,’ as we say around here.”
Also, the Dodgers in Game 4 will start 39-year-old curveballer Rich Hill, one of the game’s grittier big-game competitors but also a fellow who is often kept intact by baling wire and surgical tape. This year, between multiple injuries, he pitched only 58⅔ innings. Unfortunately for the Nats, when vertical, his ERA was 2.45.
“All hands on deck tomorrow,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We want to go to L.A. again.”
The Nats will have to overcome more than just Hill. In postseason series, messages are sent, like left hooks to the body that soften up defenses and resistance until that final right cross delivers the darkness of a season’s end.
The Dodgers sent just such a message to Corbin in that sixth inning of Game 3.
For a month, the Nats have said that they would use all three of their top starters — Strasburg, Scherzer and Corbin — in high-leverage situations in these playoffs.
Three scoreless innings of relief made Strasburg the winner in the wild-card game against the Brewers. Scherzer delivered in Game 2 against the Dodgers, striking out the side in a pivotal eighth inning as a bridge from Doolittle in the seventh to Hudson in the ninth.
Could Corbin, who allowed only one earned run in six innings in Game 1, after issuing four shaky walks in the first inning, continue the trend?
Playoff teams have tried variations of this ploy in the past but never with three elite starting pitchers — combined contracts, $525 million — all willing and, they say, delighted to step in against the heavily favored Dodgers.
The third time wasn’t the charm. Perhaps just as damaging, Corbin required 35 pitches to get through two-thirds of that hideous seven-run sixth, so he won’t be available for Game 4 and might only be useful for one hitter, or one inning at most, should there be a Game 5.
Not all seven-run innings are created equal. Some are built on walks, hit by pitches, errors, bloops, blunders and luck. Others are constructed around a 100-mph line-drive single to right, a hard opposite-field grounder smacked to right, then a pair of scalded, passing-birds-beware, line-drive doubles up the left field alley. And sometimes such explosions culminate in a three-run homer that enters the visitors’ bullpen like an meteor.
The Dodgers’ seven-run statement was the latter.
Corbin’s problem, at least the self-inflicted part, was an awful habit of getting ahead in the count 0-2, then nibbling — or missing badly — until the Dodgers’ hitters got back in the count.
What do the Nationals need to reshape this series? Perhaps because the Nats ended their regular season with eight straight wins, then won the wild-card game, it has been easy to overlook what may be the Nats’ biggest problem in this NL Division Series.
It’s not the bullpen — it’s Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.
They’ve been ice cold for weeks. In Game 3, they may have started to break out. Soto had a two-run homer to center off Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first inning, then fisted a soft single into left and drew a walk in the best all-around game he has had since mid-September. Rendon had a single and a walk but seemed a bit further away.
Since the Nats scored more runs than any team except the New York Yankees after May 23, with Rendon and Soto doing the most damage, few noted that Soto ended the year 3 for 38 (.079) with one double while Rendon was 2 for 26 (.077) with no extra-base hits.
Those are not tiny blips. Their slumps were genuinely troubling, especially since those two heart-of-the-order stars, usually the epitome of calm, became a jumpy and impatient at the plate as pitchers started walking them constantly. Soto’s 15 walks and Rendon’s 13 during their respective dry spells put plenty of runners on base for the Nats. But the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters misplaced their timing and extra-base punch.
Entering Game 3, the pair had shown bits of progress — especially Soto’s season-changing, two-run single — which ended up scoring three runners because of an error — to beat the Brewers in an elimination game.
But, all in all, the duo still entered Sunday night bearing little resemblance to themselves. Rendon — who’s been “very sick,” according to Martinez, with a bug that has gone around the clubhouse for more than two weeks — had been 2 for 10 in the postseason with one RBI and four strikeouts, while Soto was 2 for 12 with five whiffs.
Heart-of-the-order duos tend to explode in tandem. If a combined 3 for 6 with a homer and two walks is a sign of more, and perhaps even better, to come, then this NLDS may be far from over.
But, make no mistake: The Dodgers showed up big and nasty in a game they dearly needed to win with Scherzer and Strasburg lined up to ruin their season if they failed Sunday night.
The Nats’ aces are still in play. And Corbin, gamely, if not wisely, told Martinez, “I’ll be ready tomorrow.”
The Nats’ star starters are a fine foundation. However, offense, loads of it, has been the other calling card this year. Continued improvement from Rendon and Soto, which may ignite the rest of this lineup, will be needed, and soon, for the Nats to stay in the fight with such a heavyweight.