At rare times, baseball becomes almost ridiculously intense. For Washington baseball fans who were in Nationals Park on Friday night, in a winner-take-all game to see whether the Nationals or Dodgers would reach the National League Championship Series, one scene will remain with them for years.
Much as they might wish it would fade. If the Nats’ season could end in defeat and evaporate into autumn and winter, why won’t these last images disperse?
The greatest regular season pitcher on Earth but the biggest playoff disappointment of his era, Clayton Kershaw walked to the mound, pitching in relief on one day’s rest in the ninth inning with Los Angeles leading 4-3, one out and Nationals on first and second.
And who came to bat? Perhaps the best hitter in baseball this year, the man who led the NL in slugging and on-base-plus-slugging percentage: Daniel Murphy, the star who has owned the past two Octobers just as much as Kershaw has ended the past three seasons with the taste of dirt in his mouth. As the Nats’ .347 hitter came to the plate, the sellout crowd of 43,936 chanted, “MVP, MVP.”
“Murphy, best hitter on the planet,” Kershaw summarized afterward.
Some moments you almost don’t want resolved because both teams have played so fiercely throughout the series and both have so many bad and recent October nightmares to overcome. But they must end. Murphy, ahead in the count 1-0, anxiously swung at a fastball that jammed him and popped up. Earlier, he had singled and stolen a base, yes, stolen. He had been walked and stolen second base again. And with a man on base in the sixth inning, he had lashed a line drive that would have impaled the Dodgers right fielder if he hadn’t caught it.
An infield pop-up? Anticlimactic doesn’t do it justice.
“I missed my spot and he got jammed,” Kershaw said of Murphy. “My only idea was, ‘Throw as hard as I can and hope he gets out.’ ”
Suddenly, hope and expectation turned to foreboding. The man due up was not established run producer Anthony Rendon, who had been double-switched out of the game, but rookie Wilmer Difo, wearing No. 1 — a testament to the Nats’ opinion of his future prospects — but with only 46 games played in his career. In a game filled with chances for Washington, this was the Nationals’ last one.
Kershaw, face it, has suffered enough in October. Remind yourself of his philanthropic works, his modesty and his career record, which already matches Sandy Koufax’s greatest years. Remind yourself, then start throwing things at walls again. It’s going to be a long winter — again — for Nationals fans.
Doubts are daggers jabbing at the heart of performance. The Nats know all about doubts and daggers and broken hearts, three postseasons worth of them now, after this loss.
On Thursday night the Nats had all outward appearances in their favor — a howling sellout home crowd behind them, their 20-win ace Max Scherzer on the mound and the Dodgers reduced to a “staff game” with all pitching hands on deck. Yet, in the end, those haunting doubts came to the fore again. The Curse of Even Numbered Years, it appears, is now firmly established.
For these Nats, the face of doubt, the gradual loss of confidence that you will pull a game and a season out of the fire, will not just be Kershaw but, in total contribution to this defeat, Dodgers right-hander Kenley Jansen, for whom the job description “closer” will forever be a misnomer.
Usually, the 270-pound flame thrower enters to get three outs in the ninth. Sometimes, in dire circumstances, one or two more outs. The most pitches he has ever thrown in a game was 42 five years ago.
This time, he entered for the last nine outs. Asked earlier this week why Jansen is so good, catcher Yasmani Grandal said, “He throws 98 mile-per-hour cutters.” Asked how Jansen’s personality or any other quality might contribute to his success, Grandal repeated, “He throws 98 mile-per-hour cutters.”
And he got seven of those outs. By facing the entire Washington batting order once, then facing the first three hitters again in the ninth inning. The Nationals’ best chance against him died when Rendon fanned with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning.
Now Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma of St. Louis from ’12, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval of San Francisco from ’14 have companions in causing D.C. misery. Put Jansen and Kershaw in frames on that wall of disappointment.
This time the dishonors go to Joc Pederson, whose solo homer tied the score at 1 on the first pitch of the seventh inning and knocked Scherzer out of the game after a distinguished six innings, and ancient ex-Phillie Carlos Ruiz, whose pinch-hit single off Blake Treinen provided the winning L.A. run.
This game will leave burning images of disappointment in a season when, just three days ago, the Nats had two chances for a win to reach the NL Championship Series and failed both times.
Seldom have two teams, especially clubs good enough to be playing to reach the final four in their sport, had so many doubts surrounding them. The Dodgers, determined to regain their glory years after mismanagement by the McCourt family, have reached the playoffs four straight seasons. The previous three times they have won only one series.
Great baseball games, the ones we remember forever and retell until our friends and relatives still unborn beg for mercy, have a mischievous mind of their own. They lead us one way for hours, then, just as we think we understand what has happened, we realize that the real game, the tales we will embellish ad infinitum, have not even begun. The scorecard covered with red circles and exclamation marks, the mementos collected to take home with us, the images we want to burn in our cerebral cortex so that we can recall them in our blue moments or simply remember them to make an already sunny day sublime, have not even come into being yet.
This night almost proved one of those nights. One moment ignited the best sort of baseball insanity. The Nats, trailing 4-1 after a four-run Dodgers seventh inning off Scherzer and four ineffectual relievers, electrified the crowd in the space of two hitters. Danny Espinosa walked, and pinch-hitter Chris Heisey, who had a titanic batting practice, clobbered a two-run homer a half-dozen rows deep in the left field bleachers off lefty Grant Dayton to cut it to 4-3.
With nine outs left — a world of time against an exhausted Dodgers bullpen, it seemed — the Nationals surely could complete their comeback. After Clint Robinson singled and still no one out, the Dodgers seemed out of reasonable, normal baseball options. Or even desperate ones.
Then the left field bullpen door opened, and two innings before he and all his clouds of doubt were supposed to arrive, Mr. Jansen appeared. And when he was finally exhausted, Mr. Kershaw, and his 6.17 ERA in this series, followed him.
They say that every time you come to a baseball game, you will see something you have never seen before. How about a last three innings like none you have seen?
One hit at the right time would have produced a Washington win. But the Nationals again came up one run short.
And now they will live with one more offseason of doubt, added to those that went before. In time, they will see all their progress this season, their new/old manager, their fresh, talented rookies and their 95 wins.
But not now. The image of Jansen and Kershaw is too fresh. Give it time. Maybe it will fade. Maybe.