Thursday night was supposed to be different. This time, the Washington Nationals had Max Scherzer, by all measures an undisputed ace, and an offense that was clicking at the right time. This time, though it was tied at two games apiece, they believed they had outplayed the Los Angeles Dodgers in this best-of-five National League Division Series. This time, the Nationals finally were poised to break through and advance to the first NL Championship Series in club history.
Only this time it wasn’t different. More despair, in the form of a catastrophic seventh inning, added another chapter to the Nationals’ history of postseason failures in a 4-3 Game 5 loss to the Dodgers at Nationals Park.
“We just came up short,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “I’m proud of my guys, of how they played this year.”
It was the Nationals’ third loss in the NLDS in five seasons. A Washington professional baseball team still hasn’t won a playoff series since 1924.
A four-run seventh inning for the Dodgers — which started with Scherzer surrendering a game-tying home run to Joc Pederson on his 99th and final pitch, featured five relievers and exposed a variety of vulnerabilities that hindered the club at different points this season — doomed the Nationals. Washington came back with two runs in the bottom of the frame on Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit home run, but closer Kenley Jansen, typically used two innings later, entered with no outs in the seventh inning and escaped a bases-loaded jam without any further damage, one of several prime scoring opportunities Washington squandered.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound right-hander pitched until the ninth inning, when he handed the ball to Clayton Kershaw, who threw 110 pitches in Game 4 two days earlier. Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of his generation, retired Daniel Murphy and Wilmer Difo for his first save since 2006 as a minor leaguer against the Gulf Coast Nationals.
“In today’s game, especially in the short playoff series, try to get your best relievers in there in the highest leverage situations, and he did,” Murphy said. “And then he doubled down and got maybe the best pitcher on the planet in there in probably the biggest spot of the entire game.”
For six innings, Scherzer, Kershaw’s counterpart in Game 1, was the big-game pitcher the Nationals envisioned when they signed him to the richest contract in franchise history two winters ago. He mowed through the lefty-saturated Dodgers lineup, regularly using a devastating change-up to flummox batters until finally yielding his first hit to Josh Reddick to begin the fifth inning. The Dodgers added two more hits, loading the bases, but Scherzer did not succumb. First, he got Andre Ethier to swing at another change-up for strike three and the second out, pumping his fist and letting out a yell. One pitch later, Chase Utley grounded out, the inning was over, and the sea of red gushed.
Additional run support finally appeared imminent in the bottom half of the frame, First, Jayson Werth worked a leadoff walk against 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias. Two outs followed before Ryan Zimmerman cracked a line drive into the left field corner. Werth raced from first to third base, where he was aggressively sent home by third base coach Bob Henley. Earlier in the game, Henley had risked sending Murphy home on Danny Espinosa’s single to right field, testing Reddick’s arm. Reddick’s throw beat Murphy but went up the base line, allowing Murphy to dance around Yasmani Grandal’s tag past home plate and back to touch it for the game’s first run.
The second gamble proved disastrous. The relay from left fielder Andrew Toles to shortstop Corey Seager to Grandal was flawless and beat Werth by 30 feet.
“We had two outs there. We had a lead. I saw the ball get down to the base of the wall,” Henley said. “I know J’s not an above-average runner. I understand that. But we’ve been aggressive all year as a club, and I took a shot at it. Toles had to make a good throw to Seager, and then he had to make a good throw, and they did. I think after the fact, hindsight, do I wish I could have it back? Well, yeah, sure.”
Baker then thought he could squeeze one more inning out of Scherzer. The right-hander had thrown 98 pitches, and there were three lefties in the bullpen to counter the Dodgers’ bevy of left-handed batters, but Baker sent him out for the seventh inning to face the home-run-or-nothing Pederson, another left-hander.
“How do you take a guy out of a 1-0 game? Max is capable of going 100 and some odd pitches,” Baker said.
The decision immediately backfired. Scherzer’s first pitch was a 95-mph fastball down and away that Pederson lofted over the left field wall. It was the last pitch Scherzer threw, a fitting conclusion for a Cy Young Award hopeful whose résumé this season was stained by his tendency to surrender home runs at a perplexingly high rate.
“I didn’t think about pulling him out then,” Baker said. “I mean, we’ve never seen him hit the ball out in left field since we’ve played him.”
A game of strategy, matchups and double-switches ensued. First, Baker chose left-hander Marc Rzepczynski out of his bullpen to replace Scherzer and face Grandal, a switch hitter. Grandal walked on four pitches.
“I understood his decision,” Scherzer said. “And told him I’m good to go but I understand if you need to take me out for matchup for lefties because our left-handed guys at that point, in their point in the lines, was a really good matchup for them. If he felt it was a better matchup with our lefty relievers going at their guys, that’s probably the right move. That’s just the way it goes.”
When the right-handed hitting Howie Kendrick was announced as a pinch hitter for Toles, Baker emerged from the dugout again to replace Rzepczynski with right-hander Blake Treinen, another groundball specialist. Kendrick smacked a single to left field anyway.
The Nationals were gifted an out when Charlie Culberson, pinch hitting in the pitcher’s spot, struck out attempting to drop a sacrifice bunt, which brought Utley, a left-handed hitter, to the plate. Baker then made another move, removing Treinen for the left-handed Sammy Solis. Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts countered by pinch-hitting Carlos Ruiz. Solis was nearly as effective against righties as lefties this season, but Ruiz slapped a single off a diving Rendon’s glove at third base into left field to score Grandal and give the Dodgers the lead.
Solis got Corey Seager to fly out to bring Justin Turner to the plate with two outs. Turner was the only right-handed batter in the Dodgers’ starting lineup, but he was significantly better against right-handed pitchers than southpaws this season (.305 vs. .209). Yet Baker decided to take out Solis for right-hander Shawn Kelley anyway, and Turner scalded the second pitch he saw, an 82-mph slider, over Trea Turner’s head in center field.
Instead of playing it off the wall, Turner attempted to make the catch, but he couldn’t retreat fast enough, and the ball bounced off the padding to no-man’s land. By the time Turner threw the ball in, the other Turner was at third base celebrating a two-run triple and a 4-1 lead.
Meanwhile, Kelley was in pain, shaking his right arm. A crew, led by trainer Paul Lessard, bolted out of the Nationals’ dugout to check on Kelley, who is one of the few pitchers to successfully come back from a second Tommy John surgery. He walked off after a brief discussion, forcing Baker to turn to left-hander Oliver Perez, the sixth Nationals pitcher of the inning. Perez needed two pitches to retire Adrian Gonzalez and mercifully end Washington’s misery.
Stunned, the crowd of 43,936 went silent. The electricity had vanished, but it quickly reappeared with a rally. Espinosa sparked it with a leadoff walk against left-hander Grant Dayton. Heisey, pinch-hitting for Jose Lobaton, then walloped an 0-2 fastball just over the left field wall for a two-run home run, the first postseason pinch-hit homer in franchise history.
Clint Robinson, who was double-switched in during the top half of the frame, lined a single to right field to trigger an unconventional decision by Roberts. With no outs in the seventh inning, Roberts went to Jansen to face Trea Turner.
The tactic proved effective but not without some tense moments. After Turner flew out, Bryce Harper lined a single to left field to push Joe Ross, a pitcher who entered to pinch-run for Robinson, to third base. With runners at the corners, Harper stole second base as Werth struck out swinging for the second out. Harper’s theft vacated first base and Roberts chose to walk Murphy intentionally to load the bases for Rendon, who had been retired in his first three plate appearances, all with at least one runner on base. Rendon whiffed at a 95-mph cutter for strike three.
Jansen lasted until the ninth inning, when he struck out Turner but surrendered back-to-back walks to Harper and Werth. With Jansen’s pitch count at a career-high 51, Roberts summoned Kershaw.
Roberts said before the game the left-hander wasn’t available, but Kershaw approached his boss in the seventh inning and told him he would get loose and report to him whether he was felt good to enter the game. Kershaw made quick work in getting Murphy to pop out. Washington’s season was then placed on Difo’s shoulders, the final position player at Baker’s disposal pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot, which had floated to fifth in the order. He was no match against the three-time Cy Young Award winner, striking out on a curveball in the dirt.
Another celebration ensued with the Nationals, dejected, watching.