The deficit materialized so fast that few in the stands or the Washington Nationals’ dugout had time to dread its arrival. The grand pitching duel between Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer evaporated so quickly that there was little time to admire their work.
But the chances the Nationals let slip away Friday night in Game 1 of the National League Division Series will linger. Even after they fell behind four runs to the most dominant left-handed pitcher of this generation, the Nationals had opportunities to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers. They could not seize them and lost, 4-3.
These Nationals know that advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs is not easy. Doing so this year just became much harder. Scherzer, the closest thing they have to a sure thing as a starter, struggled early. The Nationals’ offense pushed Kershaw to the brink, but rally after rally fell into the hands of the bottom of the order, which let them slip away.
“We had plenty of opportunities to score,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “. . . That’s kind of the saga of the year. We didn’t hit with runners in scoring position.”
The evening began with fitting context when injured catcher Wilson Ramos limped out to the pitcher’s mound to throw out a surprise first pitch, injecting emotion and a few pangs of what might have been.
Ramos would have been in the middle of the order, one of the Nationals’ best right-handed weapons against the mighty Kershaw if he were healthy. Instead, he was mere ceremony, thanked for a career-changing season that helped get the Nationals here. When Scherzer headed to the mound, rookie Pedro Severino headed out with him for his first postseason appearance.
Two batters in, against a lineup loaded with eight left-handed hitters, rookie Corey Seager hit Scherzer’s first-pitch fastball out to center field. The pitch was supposed to be in. It stayed out, the 32nd homer Scherzer has allowed this season.
He allowed his 33rd two innings later, a two-run shot to Justin Turner. After Turner’s blast, Scherzer’s head dropped as he walked around the mound, pacing through disappointment. He hung a curveball, he said later, and would never get it — or his outing — back.
Scherzer lasted six innings. He allowed four earned runs on five hits but just one base runner after Turner’s home run in the third. Take out the homers and Scherzer would have allowed one run on three hits in six innings. Take out the homers all season and Scherzer might have won 25 games.
“It’s pitch execution,” Scherzer said. “I’m accountable for that, and I’ll shoulder that, and I’ll take the blame for that. I know I’m capable of executing pitches at a higher level, and I’ve got to do it.”
But Kershaw was not at his best either, and the Nationals did not go away. They tried to rally in the second, when Daniel Murphy returned to the lineup with a single. Ryan Zimmerman, whose reemergence as a right-handed power threat could help make up for the loss of Ramos, singled two batters later. But with two on, Danny Espinosa struck out on three pitches, and the inning ended with Scherzer popping out with the bases loaded.
The Nationals cut the deficit in half in the third, when Anthony Rendon hit a two-run, two-out single. Espinosa struck out with two on to end that inning.
“They were big outs every time,” Kershaw said of striking out Espinosa. “I threw two of my better curveballs of the night to him.”
After Severino doubled and scored in the fourth, Jayson Werth and Rendon reached again in the fifth, Kershaw’s final inning. Espinosa, who widens his stance with two strikes to try to give himself a better chance, struck out to leave two runners on that inning, too.
“He made his pitches in on the plate. He didn’t make a pitch out over to do a lot with,” Espinosa said. “When someone does that, what are you going to do?”
The Nationals knew Espinosa would strike out a bunch but stuck with him as their shortstop all season anyway, appreciative of his power and grateful for his steady, gritty defense.
If Ramos were healthy, Espinosa probably would be hitting eighth, with Zimmerman seventh. As it was, he was the hitter to which three different rallies funneled Friday night, and he left six men on base.
“[Espinosa] was swinging at balls out of the zone, and then balls in the zone he wasn’t catching up to it. His swing was long tonight,” Baker said. “He didn’t have a very good night, but we got a left-hander going tomorrow, so he’s back in there tomorrow.”
Espinosa was certainly not the only National to squander a chance.
When Murphy walked with one out in the seventh, he was the tying run. Stunningly, given a sore glute that forced him out of the lineup for two weeks, Murphy took off for second and was thrown out. Baker said all of his players have the green light, and Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez was particularly slow to home plate. Murphy said his legs felt good, but he should not have run.
“There’s two choices on that,” Murphy said. “Either be safe or don’t run.”
Clint Robinson got his first career postseason at-bat in the eighth, by which time the Dodgers had brought on closer Kenley Jansen. The 31-year-old doubled with two outs, but Chris Heisey struck out looking at a 3-2 pitch, staring at another rally gone for naught. The Nationals put the tying run on base in four of the last five innings. That run never scored.