There is a different tenor to what awaits Wednesday night in the hills of Los Angeles. It has to do with this past week and this past season, the characters who are at the controls and the status and psyche of the opponent. This time, the Nationals can view what’s ahead as an opportunity to seize. The Dodgers conversely might see it as an implosion to avoid. There’s a glass-half-full-or-half-empty element to what will transpire when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound for Washington as the sun starts to set over the Pacific. Darned if there isn’t a lot of milk in this cup — for the moment.
Let’s be clear about a few things: The Dodgers absolutely could beat the Nationals on Wednesday night. They won 106 games. They will pitch right-hander Walker Buehler, who shut out the Nats over six innings in Game 1. They will have lefty Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher of his generation, in the bullpen on full rest. Their lineup is loaded, deep, balanced and expertly deployed.
A win for the Dodgers would be a win for chalk and would surprise just about no one outside the Nats’ clubhouse.
Remember when the Nats held that status? The players don’t bother trying.
“Once you start thinking about how things could have been or what things might happen,” Strasburg said, “it takes your focus away from what your job is.”
Focus on your job, Stephen, because that’s important. The rest of us can consider what might be different this time, as well as what already is.
Start with the Dodgers themselves. They have won the past seven NL West titles. They have won the past two NL pennants. There is one acceptable result this October: win the franchise’s first World Series since 1988.
Think the Nats, who have never advanced past this stage, feel any sort of pressure? Maybe. The Dodgers’ quest hangs over the entire city.
“I think that anybody’s going to feel pressure,” Buehler said. “I think it’s more about what you do with it.”
Now consider the venue. Dodger Stadium holds some 56,000. No club draws more fans. When full — and when the bass-pumping P.A. system is really thumping — it can be head-splitting.
“There’s going to be 45,000 fans there,” said Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, selling his fan base a little short. “As a fan, as a player, you live for moments like this.”
But it can also be . . . eerily quiet. When that many people gather in one place and collectively sit on their hands — as nervous home crowds can do when the pressure intensifies — the silence not only provides nothing to the home team, it can inspire the visitors. “Fire ’em up at home?” Sure. But that’s not as powerful as “Shut ’em up on the road.”
This is the first time the Nats will play a Game 5 away from the District. Remember those vibes? In 2012, the day after Werth’s bottom-of-the-ninth homer extended the season and provided the franchise with its best moment (to date), the Nats roared to a 6-0 lead over St. Louis after three innings. But Gonzalez . . . we’ll get to him.
The point is: Over time, the Game 5 crowds at Nationals Park have been filled with more angst than glee. The six-run lead against the Cardinals evaporated into a miserable loss, which in a way set the stage for Scherzer allowing Joc Pederson’s game-tying homer in the seventh inning of Game 5 in 2016, which in a way led to Gonzalez being granted a 4-1 lead in Game 5 in 2017 against the Cubs, before he . . .
Okay, wait a second. Let’s get to Gonzalez — only because we need to be reminded that the man taking the ball for the Nats on Wednesday isn’t Gonzalez.
It’s incredible to think that in two of the Nats’ three Game 5s, Gonzalez got the ball. Yes, he was coming off his two best seasons — a 2.89 ERA in 2012 and a 2.96 ERA in 2017. But in each case, he was handed a lead — and promptly gave a chunk of it back. His combined effort in those two win-and-advance games: eight innings, eight hits, six runs, eight walks, 10 strikeouts.
The gulf between that character and the man to whom the Nats will give the ball Wednesday spans the distance between South Capitol Street and Vin Scully Avenue. With a tip of the cap to Scherzer, whose draining seven-inning outing in Game 4 was necessary even to provide the flight west, Strasburg is the pitcher the Nats want at this moment against this team.
Doubting that? Let’s go over his stats from his two outings this postseason — one in relief in the wild-card game, one start against the Dodgers in Game 2: nine innings, five hits, one run, zero walks, 14 strikeouts, a .167 average against and .391 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against.
Need more? It’s worth reviewing that in five career postseason appearances, Strasburg has a .192 average and .451 OPS against, with a 0.64 ERA and 38 strikeouts and four walks in 28 innings. Buehler? Buehler is good, and the Nats, who managed only one hit against him in Game 1, have to figure out a way to scratch through. But Strasburg is a force who has an appreciation of what his franchise has been through to get another chance.
For the first time, it’s his, and that matters.
“To have another opportunity to move on, when you appreciate it a lot more — especially when you played a little bit longer — you start to realize how hard it is to get there,” Strasburg said. “All you can really do is just give it everything you have.”
The Nats are a flawed team. But they have given it everything they have to force this game. The pressure, for once, is demonstrably on the opponent. Against the built-to-win-it-all Dodgers, that guarantees nothing — other than the idea that these hours before first pitch should be more relaxed than in the past. Embrace the optimism and the opportunity. The Nationals have.