LOS ANGELES - The seventh-inning rally, featuring so many quality at-bats and a little bit of good fortune, had brought the Nationals back from the brink, improbably giving them five runs off Clayton Kershaw and leaving the fate of Game 4 of the National League Division Series hanging in the balance.
But the Dodgers weren't totally deflated, despite their best efforts to melt down in front of 49,617 of their fans. They clawed their way back, plating the decisive run in the bottom of the eighth off reliever Blake Treinen. And when Kenley Jansen finished things off in the ninth, this best-of-five series officially was headed back to Washington for a winner-take-all showdown.
Unable to wrap things up on the West Coast, the Nationals lost a dramatic Game 4 by a 6-5 margin. They'll return home for Game 5 on Thursday evening, with Max Scherzer on the mound trying to pitch the club to its first postseason series victory.
That the Nationals were in prime position to win the series today was fairly remarkable, considering it required a three-run rally in the seventh against Kershaw and two Dodgers relievers just to tie the game up. They sucked the life out of Chavez Ravine.
But the place came alive again in the bottom of the eighth, when Treinen hit Andrew Toles to start a two-out rally, then surrendered singles to veterans Andre Ethier and Chase Utley, the latter bringing the go-ahead run home.
Jansen, who gave up four runs Monday afternoon in the Nationals' Game 3 victory, pitched a scoreless ninth this time. And thus wrapped up a wildly entertaining and terrifyingly tense Game 4.
With thousands of empty seats for this late-scheduled Tuesday matinee, the vibe inside Dodger Stadium early suggested anything but postseason baseball, let alone a potential elimination game for the home club. And when the Nationals jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead, the uninformed visitor might have mistaken this for a mid-June getaway day game.
The Nats got that early run thanks to Trea Turner's single on the game's first pitch, Bryce Harper's walk to cap a fantastic, nine-pitch at-bat against Kershaw and Daniel Murphy's RBI single to right.
But the Dodgers fired right back and for the fourth time in this series scored in their half of the first inning. Joe Ross came out throwing gas, hitting 96 mph early, but his fastball to Adrian Gonzalez was up in the zone and right over the plate. And Gonzalez made him pay for it, launching a two-run homer to right-center to give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead and the crowd reason to start acting like this was indeed a postseason game.
The Nationals did bounce back and tie the game again on Murphy's sacrifice fly in the third, but they failed to make the most of their early opportunities against Kershaw and helped him right the ship thanks to the ineffectiveness of the bottom half of their lineup. Washington's fifth through ninth hitters went a combined 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts in the first six innings against Kershaw.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, managed to knock Ross from the game in the bottom of the third, wearing down the right-hander, whose final three batters faced reached via two walks and a bases-loaded hit batsman. Dusty Baker thus needed 6 1/3 innings from his bullpen. Oliver Perez recorded four outs. Reynaldo Lopez recorded six, though the rookie did give up a key insurance run, leaving the Nationals facing a 5-2 deficit.
But then came the top of the seventh, and that's when the entire storyline of this ballgame was flipped on its head.
With Dave Roberts trying to squeeze one more inning out of Kershaw, Danny Espinosa came to the plate and led off the inning with a line drive single to left, his first hit of the series in his 14th plate appearance. Espinosa then helped prolong the inning by beating Corey Seager's throw to second on Turner's grounder to the shortstop's glove side. With Harper coming up to bat representing the tying run, Roberts walked to the mound, presumably to pull his starter. Except the conversation lasted all of 2.3 seconds and ended with Roberts walking back to the dugout, Kershaw still standing on the mound and the crowd roaring with approval.
Harper, though, put together a great at-bat against Kershaw in the first inning, drawing a nine-pitch walk. And he did it again in the seventh, taking two balls after falling behind 1-2, then fouling off two straight 3-2 pitches, then taking ball four to load the bases.
With Kershaw's pitch count at 110, Roberts had no choice but to go to his bullpen. Pedro Baez, though, drilled Jayson Werth with the one and only pitch he threw all afternoon, forcing in a run. Lefty Luis Avilan then entered to face Murphy, whom he struck out in Game 3. His fate was not the same in Game 4. Murphy lined a ball to left-center, Turner and Harper came racing around to score and this game incredibly was tied 5-5.