LOS ANGELES — What the Washington Nationals have accomplished in the span of 27 hours, with a coast-to-coast flight jammed in the middle, may have come at them a bit too fast to fully digest while events were in progress. That may be good in their case. They just played. They hardly had time to think.
Now, almost before they realized it, after an 8-3 win over Los Angeles on Monday in Game 3 of this National League Division Series, they are in the driver’s seat — imagine that, Washington in the driver’s seat in the playoffs — with two shots to knock out the Dodgers and win the first postseason series by a D.C. team since 1924.
Whether a bit bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, the Nats laid the best of their brand of baseball on the Dodgers in the most beautiful ballpark setting in America. The San Gabriel Mountains peeked over the outfield bleachers so they could watch Anthony Rendon demolish a 432-foot two-run home run halfway up the left field bleachers in the third inning for a 4-1 lead. Later, former Dodger Jayson Werth topped that, at least for distance, with a 450-foot bomb off a Kenley Jansen fastball in the ninth inning for a precious insurance run, nudging the lead to 5-3. Also, Ryan Zimmerman bashed a two-run double off the wall in right.
Who had these batting averages in the postseason Nats pool? Zimmerman, who has heard himself called “washed up” just about enough: .455. Werth, the oldest Nats player at 37: .417. Daniel Murphy, who missed the past three weeks of the regular season with a buttock strain and didn’t know whether he could rediscover his stroke: .400. The replacements for Ramos are also doing fine, with Jose Lobaton, who had the biggest hit of Game 2 with a three-run homer, adding another hit in Game 3.
Remember the Nats who came out tight and scored only nine runs in four games in 2014, when the Giants beat them? Well, these aren’t those guys.
“I played a lot of games here, and I always wanted to hit one out of the stadium,” said Werth, who tied the game at 1 with an RBI double in the third inning and also singled and walked. “I never thought it was possible. So if that ball doesn’t go out, I don’t think I can do it.”
Comparing his blast with Werth’s, Rendon cracked, “I need to lift some weights.”
The Dodgers, who have the third-best starters’ ERA in baseball (behind the Nats who are second), have sent out their three best pitchers, Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and, in Game 3, 16-game winner Kenta Maeda. Their ERAs are 5.40, 8.31 and 12.00. Together, they have lasted only 12⅓ innings, putting a fat load on the Dodgers’ bullpen.
Hitters get headlines, but the Nats also have been saved, after poor starts by Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, by superlative work from a bullpen that was reworked in midseason. The ERAs of Mark Melancon, Sammy Solis, Shawn Kelley, Marc Rzepczynski, Oliver Perez and Blake Treinen are easy to remember. They are all 0.00 in 121/3 innings with 14 strikeouts.
“We need some rest,” said Manager Dusty Baker, grinning. Then he acknowledged what everyone knows — Game 3 is very often the pivot point. “That was big — because we exploded.”
Before this series, Werth said, “Game 3 is the key.” He came ready.
Now the Dodgers find themselves in a pitching box canyon with no appealing options. The great Kershaw is coming back from 10 weeks on the disabled list with a herniated disk in his back — no minor ailment. In Game 1, he didn’t look like himself, bouncing curves and getting hit hard. The Dodgers could start him, in what might feel like desperation, in Game 4 on just three days’ rest to avoid elimination. Or they can pitch 20-year-old southpaw rookie Julio Urias with the season at stake and hope that there will be a Game 5 back in D.C. against Scherzer.
If the Nats had lost this game, they would have been in a similar bind, wondering whether they should pitch Scherzer in Game 4 on short rest. Five-game series are a beast that put teams in binds from which there is no pleasant escape.
In the past in October, the Nats have had trouble shrugging off psychological blows like poor or nervous performances from key players. They got another of those nerve-wringers from Gonzalez, but they surmounted it. Seldom have both teams been so scared of the same pitcher — Gio, the most likely pitcher to forget to cover first base but remember your birthday.
The Dodgers can’t hit left-handers. But Gonzalez has never stood up very well to playoff pressure in any of his four postseason starts. This time, given a 4-1 lead, he saw it cut to 4-3 after a two-run pinch-hit homer in the fifth by Carlos Ruiz. That brought Dusty’s hook.
“I didn’t take him out,” Baker said. “He took himself out [by the way he pitched].”
Soon after Gonzalez left the game, so did some of the sunshine as the fall light sent shadows toward home plate, then over it, then finally, by the eighth inning, all the way into the outfield. The black “hitter’s background” in center field, hit with the evening light, suddenly became a misnomer. Instead, call it the pitcher’s friend.
The Nats’ bullpen fulfilled its role admirably as lefty Solis, replacing Gonzalez, got five outs, then lefty Perez got one and Kelley five more. In all, they fanned five, allowed only two singles and one walk and never allowed a Dodger past first base.
By the ninth inning, only the San Gabriels were still in light. Hitters could see again. First, Werth saw a 450-foot homer — his 15th career postseason blast, tying him with Babe Ruth. Then, after two walks, Zimmerman saw his blast go off a glove for a two-run double.
Suddenly, there it was, clear as anything — the Nationals one win from advancing to the NLCS where, reportedly, a World Series representative is determined. The hardest victory in every series is the last. But the Nats have arrived at that juncture. With one to spare.