The breeze that gusted in from left field Sunday afternoon hit the Washington Nationals with cruel reality as Jose Lobaton stepped to the plate in the fourth inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
Their aces had struggled. Their offense had faltered. Their weaknesses had been exposed, and their strengths sat dormant. Los Angeles Dodgers starter Rich Hill, who had not been good enough to make their roster in 2015, was good enough to embarrass them with curveball after curveball. A cross-country flight and a two-game deficit loomed. Then Lobaton, of all people, took a mighty swing. The ball flew high to left, and curses flew around the dugout because almost everyone thought the wind was sure to knock it down.
But Lobaton’s blast sliced through the breeze and landed in the Dodgers’ bullpen, giving the Nationals their first lead of the series. The script flipped on that swing, which lifted them to a 5-2 victory that was preserved by their bullpen, which did some postseason script-flipping itself.
“A couple guys in the dugout were like, wow, maybe that moment wasn’t windy,” Lobaton said. “Maybe that moment it just stopped and gave me something extra.”
When Lobaton came to bat, the Nationals had three postseason hits with runners in scoring position since Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS. He had one hit against left-handed pitching all season. Hill had allowed one home run with men on base all season. But Lobaton defied the breeze and the odds and sent the Nationals on a flight to Los Angeles needing two wins to advance — not two wins to stay alive.
“It kind of felt like the monkey jumped off our back a little bit,” said left fielder Jayson Werth, who said he had never seen the kind of wind he battled Sunday. “Just a big sigh of relief from the dugout. We needed a big hit.”
These are not the same Nationals who won 95 games. Every team has injuries, but until Lobaton’s swing, the Nationals had not compensated for theirs very well.
Roark said he was nervous Friday morning, hours before Game 1, but he figured being nervous just meant he cared. But after rain pushed his start back a day, he seemed more excited than usual to begin. A few pitches later, a fastball stayed over the plate, and rookie Corey Seager hit it out to right center, his second first-inning home run in as many games.
Roark said maybe the added energy affected him “here and there,” but as he wrestled his enthusiasm through 4⅓ innings — one of his shortest outings of the season — he said “nibbling was more the problem.”
He left with two men on in the fifth, having allowed two runs on seven hits and three walks. He also left with a lead.
As for Ramos’s replacement, after Pedro Severino stepped in and showed well against Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, Manager Dusty Baker opted for Lobaton against another lefty in Game 2.
The game found him almost immediately, when Lobaton grounded into a bases-loaded double play in the second. An inning later, he dropped a throw that beat Justin Turner to the plate, and the Dodgers took a 2-0 lead.
“[I felt] really bad,” Lobaton said. “. . . I’ve been growing up a lot in baseball, and I’ve been trying to put, separate a lot, what happened in the moment and keep going forward.”
An inning later, Hill hit Danny Espinosa for the second time in three innings to put two on for Lobaton. He stepped in for his 17th at-bat against left-handed pitching all year, caught one of those Hill curveballs up in the zone and hit it out. Only one other hitter, Houston all-star Jose Altuve, had homered against Hill’s curve this year.
“The most impressive thing that I’ve seen is to take the layoff that he’s taken this year on a couple of occasions,” Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “. . . To be able to come in and have really, really good professional at-bats.”
The bullpen, much maligned in Octobers past, and Murphy, far less maligned this time of year, took over from there.
Murphy drove in runs with singles in the fifth and seventh that helped the Nationals build their lead. Marc Rzepczynski and three others held the Dodgers down until the ninth, at which point Mark Melancon took over — the first time in Nationals history a closer not named Drew Storen was sent in for a postseason save. He got it and headed toward the plate to chest-bump Lobaton after a scoreless ninth.
Two seasons after melting down against the San Francisco Giants, the Nationals’ bullpen has not allowed a run in 7 2/3 innings.
After going 3 for 35 with runners in scoring position in the playoffs from Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS until Lobaton’s swing, the Nationals went 4 for 8 with runners in scoring position Sunday.
Early on, it looked as if the baseball winds might blow the Nationals to Los Angeles fighting for their playoff lives. Those winds quelled for a day — or perhaps, just one fourth-inning moment — and the Nationals now will play Monday with a chance to take a series lead.