After seven-run sixth, Nationals' season on brink (updated)

In electing to start Aníbal Sánchez tonight for Game 3 of the National League Division Series and hold Max Scherzer back for Game 4, the Nationals mapped out what felt like a viable path to victory.

They were confident in Sánchez's ability to hold the Dodgers lineup in check, but they also were confident in Patrick Corbin's ability to replace him at some point and serve as tonight's much-needed bridge from starter to back end of the bullpen.

So when the very scenario they had dreamed up pregame actually presented itself mid-game, the Nationals did exactly what they planned to do.

They just didn't plan for it to go so horribly wrong.

After getting five dominant innings from Sánchez and with his team up a run, manager Davey Martinez gave the ball to Corbin for the sixth, then watched as the lefty gave up six of the seven runs the Dodgers would score to turn Game 3 on its head and ultimately send the Nationals to a 10-4 loss that leaves their season on the brink.

"I trust Pat," Martinez said afterward. "He's been unbelievable all year. And I would do it again, I really would. He was the guy."

It's hard to believe after the fact, but Corbin was oh-so-close to getting out of the sixth with a 2-1 lead intact, and his pitch count low enough to warrant returning to the mound for the seventh.

After a leadoff single, he struck out both Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock, then induced a weak grounder out of David Freese to the right side of the infield. But with second baseman Brian Dozier shaded up the middle, there was no play on the ball, and the inning continued.

"It was a fastball in and I think it was where we wanted it," Corbin said. "Just kind of found a hole and the inning continued."

Soto-Misplays-Ball-White-NLDS-Sidebar.jpgDid it ever. The inning completely fell apart after that. Corbin (and later Wander Suero) would give up seven runs via three extra-base hits that all came with two strikes and two outs. Russell Martin ripped a Corbin slider off the wall in left-center to drive in two and give the Dodgers the lead. Kiké Hernández drilled a 1-2 slider to left-center for another two-run double. And after Suero entered to replace the ineffective Corbin (who retired only two of the eight batters he faced), Justin Turner completed the stunning rally with a three-run homer over the left field bullpen.

"It just stinks," said Corbin, who wound up throwing 35 pitches in his one inning of work. "I feel like I let these guys down. They did a great job scoring, getting the lead early, and Sánchez pitched a heck of a game. So, it's tough."

That was the game right there. Some more stuff happened, including an attempted rally by the Nationals in the bottom of the sixth that featured two runs but an egregious baserunning blunder by Howie Kendrick that foiled matters, then another towering two-run homer off Hunter Strickland in the top of the ninth to put a final nail in the coffin.

But the game, truthfully, was settled during that fateful, agonizing top of the sixth that may come to define this series, which is now in danger of ending Monday night.

The Nationals will need not only a big-time start from Scherzer to force a Game 5 at Dodger Stadium. They'll also need a more consistent offensive performance, especially with runners on base. And, most importantly, they'll need to figure out some kind of bullpen formula that can close out a game once the starter departs.

They found a formula that worked in the wild card game, and they found another that worked in Game 2 in Los Angeles. But both of those featured either Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg in relief, along with Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson.

Scherzer, obviously, is starting Monday night. Strasburg doesn't figure to be available out of the 'pen because he's lined up to start a potential Game 5 on Wednesday, though Martinez may have no choice but to consider it. Doolittle and Hudson, neither of whom appeared tonight, should be locks to pitch in Game 4.

"All hands on deck tomorrow," the manager said. "We are going to come out, we're going to fight and those guys know what we're playing for: We want to go to L.A. That's all this means. I told them that's all this means: We would have to go to L.A. again."

By the time this 3-hour, 58-minute affair ended, the events of the first inning felt like ancient history. This game did, however, start on a decidedly high note that had the overflow crowd whipped into an early frenzy.

Sánchez, just as he did the last time he faced the Dodgers on July 26, got himself into a bases loaded jam in the top of the first. And Sánchez, just as he did the last time he faced the Dodgers on July 26, wriggled his way out of it with guts and a low-70s, fluttering changeup that completely baffled Cody Bellinger and Pollock.

"I tried to (go) with my breaking balls and get out of the inning," he said. "I know if I get out of the inning with no runs, I can stay longer with no runs in the game."

Juan Soto then really got the place fired up when he blasted a high fastball from Hyun-Jin Ryu over the center field wall, a two-run homer that gave the Nationals a quick lead and further showcased the 20-year-old's superb ability to come up big against some of the league's toughest left-handers.

Handed a 2-0 lead, Sánchez then found his groove. Which is to say, he found a way to keep getting to two strikes and putting away Dodgers hitters with his changeup. He struck out six of seven batters (five in a row) at one point, five of them on various versions of his changeup.

There was the harder, mid-80s version, which registers on the scoreboard as a splitter. But the real star was the slower, low-70s version affectionately known as "The Butterfly," which left some of the most dangerous hitters in the league flummoxed.

"I'm not going to say that I'm a strikeout pitcher," said Sánchez, who ranked 50th out of 61 qualifying starters this season with only 7.27 strikeouts per nine innings. "I (try to) hit the strike zone to get a quick out with very few pitches. But today was a lot of strikeouts. I think my changeup was really good today, and I used it for any reason."

Sánchez kept cruising along, scattering a couple of hits here and there but keeping the Dodgers off the scoreboard. Then, with two outs in the fifth, a blast. Max Muncy, who has become that lineup's biggest threat this series, hammered an 0-2 fastball to right-center. The shutout was over, and now the big decision of the night was looming for Martinez.

Sánchez had thrown 87 pitches, but a lefty-heavy portion of the L.A. lineup was due up in the sixth. Corbin was warming in the bullpen.

The Nationals had mapped out a scenario just like this in advance of tonight's game. They weren't about to deviate from the plan.

"Sánchez gave us five good innings," Martinez said. "Kept us in the ballgame. After that, where we were at in the lineup, we liked Corbin there."

If only it had worked and didn't leave them now needing to come up with a new plan for what is suddenly a do-or-die Game 4 on Monday night. And then hope they get a chance to fly back to the West Coast and do it all over again in Game 5.

"Hey, we got to put this game behind us," catcher Yan Gomes said. "We've done it before. We've done it plenty of times. We've got our two best guys that anybody would want going the next couple days. So we like our chances."

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