LOS ANGELES — The screenplay was eerily familiar. There was another short outing from Gio Gonzalez. There was a stream of missed opportunities to grow an early lead. There was the bullpen, asked again to hold it together in a pivotal National League Division Series game. These Washington Nationals are not the 2012 Nationals or the 2014 version, but their fate appeared similar for a couple of hours at Dodger Stadium on Monday afternoon.
Then came the twist. There was no collapse. No ninth-inning meltdown. These Nationals held the Los Angeles Dodgers at bay with another dominant bullpen performance, added timely hits for late insurance and left with an 8-3 victory to seize a 2-1 series lead and move within one win of the club’s first NL Championship Series appearance. It is their first playoff series lead since Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS. They have a chance to advance Tuesday in Game 4.
“I feel like our bullpen is going to hold up,” Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth said. “That might not have been the case or feeling in years past.”
Gonzalez’s goal was to pitch deep into the game, a feat he had not accomplished in any of his first three playoff outings. The matchup was favorable: The Dodgers were the worst team in baseball against left-handed pitching this season, and Gonzalez pitched eight scoreless innings in his previous start here last season.
He retired 11 of 12 after allowing a run in the first inning and entered the fifth inning with a three-run lead. But a mistake to Carlos Ruiz prompted another exit earlier than he would have liked. Pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot, Ruiz crushed a two-run home run to left field with one out in the fifth inning that ended Gonzalez’s day at 83 pitches and left the Nationals’ bullpen to secure 14 outs for the second straight day, this time with a 4-3 edge.
The Nationals’ relief corps, a completely different cast of characters from the 2014 iteration, did not wilt. Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez and Shawn Kelley held the Dodgers scoreless until the offense tacked on four runs in the ninth. Pitching with a five-run lead, closer Mark Melancon recorded a perfect ninth to extend the bullpen’s scoreless streak in the series to 12⅓ innings. The Dodgers mustered two hits and a walk against the four relievers.
“There were doubters this season as to the strength of our bullpen, and I think we’re proving everyone wrong right now,” Solis said. “I think going into the postseason people probably questioned what we can do, but we’re showing everybody right now that we’re the real deal.”
Anthony Rendon’s two-run home run, a 432-foot shot to left field, completed a four-run third inning, which served as Washington’s offensive production until Werth outdid Rendon with a 450-foot blast off Dodgers all-star closer Kenley Jansen. Werth walked, singled, doubled and homered in five plate appearances. Ryan Zimmerman added a two-run double against Jansen and scored on Chris Heisey’s sacrifice fly to supply the final insurance.
“We were wondering, like, man, we’ve got to score some more here,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “Because this game is close and they have so much firepower over there.”
The teams arrived in Los Angeles late Sunday night, tasked with an unusually quick cross-country turnaround for a postseason game because Game 2 was postponed from Saturday to Sunday and Major League Baseball refused to budge from Monday’s fixed start time.
So in a matter of 24 hours, the clubs went from a gusty Nationals Park to a sun-soaked Dodger Stadium for a pivotal Game 3. The early weekday start produced a late-arriving crowd. Those in their seats by first pitch caught Kenta Maeda hastily dismissing Trea Turner with a three-pitch strikeout to begin his postseason debut stateside.
The rest of Maeda’s first inning against a team he had never faced was laborious. He yielded a single to Werth and walked two to load the bases before getting Zimmerman to strike out on three pitches. The Nationals missed a chance to pounce, but Maeda needed 28 pitches to get through the inning, and the price was soon paid.
The Dodgers weren’t as wasteful. After Howie Kendrick led off with a lineout against Gonzalez, Justin Turner worked a walk and scored from first base on Corey Seager’s double off the right-center field wall. It was the rookie shortstop’s third extra-base hit and RBI in the first inning in the series — he hit a solo home run in the first inning in each of the first two games.
The Nationals’ four-run third held sway until Ruiz’s home run, which prompted Baker to double-switch the left-handed Solis into the game. After logging two innings in Game 1 and pitching to one batter in Game 2, the converted starter tossed 12/3 innings Monday.
“Sammy Solis is the show-show,” Gonzalez said. “The man is the real deal.”
Perez followed with one-third of an inning before Kelley was inserted for his postseason debut. The right-hander pitched 1⅔ innings, striking out three of the five batters he faced to set the stage for Washington’s four-run ninth, which gave the club its highest postseason run total in franchise history.
“What we’ve learned the last couple times is really helping us this time,” Zimmerman said. “But we haven’t done anything yet.”