Clutch hit eludes Nats once again in Game 1 loss to Dodgers

The pessimistic view of Game 1 of the National League Division Series will suggest that this looked awfully familiar.

The Nationals ace didn't live up to the hype, surrendering a couple of big blows. The lineup gave itself countless opportunities with men in scoring position and couldn't deliver. The end result: a one-run loss that leaves this club facing an uphill battle in this best-of-five series.

Tonight's 4-3 loss to the Dodgers bore plenty of resemblance to the Nationals' three losses to the Giants in the 2014 NLDS, all of them coming by one run, all of them highly winnable ballgames.

nats-game-1-nlds.pngWill the outcome this time around be different? Check back in a few days. For now, many will assume the worst.
Not that there weren't positives in this game. Though they couldn't deliver the knockout blow necessary to beat Clayton Kershaw, they did make the Dodgers ace sweat, piling up eight hits and a walk and driving his pitch count up to triple-digits in only five innings.

Though Max Scherzer was done in yet again by a pair of home runs, the Nationals ace took what could have been a disastrous start and at least plugged up the leaks, giving his teammates a chance to come back.

None of that, of course, changes the final outcome, nor the fact the Nationals now trail the series and will need to win three of the next four games to avoid their third first-round elimination in as many tries over five years.

Whether it was the frustration of past postseason failures, the promise of something different this time around or something else entirely, the ballpark was rocking from the outset this evening. The crowd roared when Dusty Baker was introduced. The crowd roared when Wilson Ramos hobbled to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The crowd roared when Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins declared "Play ball!" from atop the dugout. And the crowd roared when Scherzer opened the game with a four-pitch strikeout of Chase Utley.

And then, sudden silence. Corey Seager pounced on a first-pitch fastball from Scherzer, sent it soaring over the center field wall and Nationals Park fell silent.

And when the Dodgers added three more runs in the top of the third, capped by Justin Turner's two-run homer on a first-pitch curveball, a palpable sense of dread consumed the whole place. Down 4-0? To Kershaw? There may have been a lot of baseball left, but what were the odds of overcoming that combination?

Maybe not as steep as most in the park and watching at home might have thought at the time. To their credit, the Nationals kept the pressure on Kershaw, kept putting men on base, kept driving up his pitch count.

They stranded the bases loaded in the bottom of the second despite an impressive battle at the plate from Scherzer. Then they finally delivered in the third, when Anthony Rendon roped a two-out two-run single to left, bringing the crowd back to life and the Nationals back to within two runs.

Pedro Severino's leadoff double in the fourth led to another run, this one manufactured by Scherzer's ground ball to the right side and Trea Turner's sacrifice fly to center.

That the Nationals managed to get the deficit back to only 4-3 spoke volumes about their grind-it-out approach against Kershaw. They had their share of opportunities to get the tying and go-ahead runs home, though, plenty of them.

Nobody had more opportunities than Danny Espinosa, who three times in a four-inning span came up to bat with two men on base. All three times he failed to make contact, striking out swinging at anything Kershaw threw his way, including one third strike at his eyelids.

In the end, the Nationals knocked Kershaw out after five innings, his pitch count at 101 (a full 10 more than he had thrown in any start since returning from the disabled list a month ago). They got into the middle portion of the Los Angeles bullpen, which is precisely what they wanted.

They just had to find a way to come through against that group. They couldn't, though they had one final shot against All-Star closer Kenley Jansen, who was asked to record a five-out save. After pinch-hitter Clint Robinson cued a double down the third base line (his first extra-base hit since July 8), pinch-hitter Chris Heisey came up to bat with two outs and a chance to tie the game. Heisey got the count to 3-1, but then swung at what would have been ball four up out of the zone and then took strike three at the knees.

That left the Nationals 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. And surely left fans of this team feeling very much like they've seen this sort of thing before at this time of the year.

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