LOS ANGELES - The Nationals know they played loose all season, enjoying the moment even when they at times struggled. And they know they didn't play loose during Thursday night's 6-0 shutout loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
How, then, do they rediscover that essential mindset tonight while facing an even more pressure packed scenario, desperately trying to avoid falling behind 2-0 in the best-of-five series?
Maybe a reappearance of the infamous camels from spring training 2018?
"Why can't I do that?" Davey Martinez asked with a straight face this afternoon, before then cracking a smile.
There are no stunts to be pulled, at least nothing to that extent. Martinez did plan to show his team a video he saw earlier today of the children's choir at Washington National Cathedral singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in support of the Nationals.
"Maybe that will loosen them up a little bit," Martinez mused.
These things, of course, really have to come from the players themselves, as we saw this season when veterans like Gerardo Parra and AnÃbal SÃ¡nchez managed to liven things up in the clubhouse and dugout, leading to a summer of dugout dance parties, "Baby Shark" chomps and post-victory celebrations.
Turns out the players did take time after Thursday's loss to remind everyone of how they got here in the first place.
"I think that one of our strengths has been being loose and never really panicking," right fielder Adam Eaton said. "Almost taking the kind of Tony Rendon-type mentality: enjoying one another, having fun. But since we have been in the playoffs, I think the seriousness level has peaked. Like all of a sudden we have to be serious, or somebody that we're not.
"But after the game last night, a lot of the guys had some things to say, and I think it's going to translate today for us. Get us to stay loose and have a perspective that has been so successful for us all year long."
Nothing would loosen the Nationals up more than a couple of early runs, something they haven't been able to do in either of their two postseason games this week. To that end, Martinez assembled a lineup tonight that prioritizes offense over defense. Ryan Zimmerman, who is 12-for-34 with a homer in his career versus Kershaw, is starting at first base. And Howie Kendrick, who was charged with two errors at first base Thursday night, is shifting to second base.
It's a bit of a gamble defensively, but Martinez felt like he couldn't afford to leave Kendrick's bat on the bench for this game.
"I just like the matchup with the righties on Kersh tonight," the manager said. "Zim has a pretty good history on him. And definitely want to keep Howie's bat in the lineup."
The Nationals also will need a better performance from their bullpen tonight than they got in Game 1, when Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland combined to give up four runs in two innings, leaving the game out of reach.
The good news: Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson are fresh and almost certain to pitch tonight regardless of the situation, perhaps even for more than one inning each.
"I mean, part of the decision making (not to use Doolittle in Game 1) was if we had the lead today, we have to throw him, get four outs out of him, then he could do it," Martinez said. "So that was the big question. We've got to use him, and we've got to use him in the right way. Being that we have a day off tomorrow, we can get him out there. And if he's pitching well, maybe get five outs out of him."
Update: The Nationals wanted to get off to a hot start tonight, and that's exactly what they did. They're up 3-0 after two innings, really putting the pressure on Kershaw. They loaded the bases in the first and got an RBI single from Kendrick. They had a chance to do more damage, but Zimmerman popped up and Kurt Suzuki struck out. No worries, because they came right back in the second and scored two more runs, thanks to two-out RBI hits by Eaton and Anthony Rendon. Stephen Strasburg, meanwhile, has cruised through his first two innings, retiring all six batters on 23 pitches, with a really sharp curveball and changeup. No complaints about anything so far for the Nats.
Update II: Strasburg is done after six innings of three-hit, one-run ball. He didn't walk a batter and struck out 10, the third time in four career postseason starts he's reached double digits in whiffs. Doolittle replaced him in the seventh and yielded a solo homer to Max Muncy, cutting the lead to 3-2.
Update III: The Nats got an important insurance run in the eighth, increasing their lead to 4-2. Zimmerman doubled to lead off the inning and Suzuki walked. Victor Robles moved the runners up with a sacrific bunt and pinch-hitter AsdrÃºbal Cabrera hit an RBI single to right, but was caught in a rundown between first and second with Suzuki holding third. Max Scherzer is coming in to work the bottom of the eighth.
Update IV: Scherzer struck out the side in the eighth, topping out at 99 mph with movement on his fastball.
Update V: Daniel Hudson struck out Corey Seager with the bases loaded in the ninth to preserve a 4-2 Nationals win and send the series back to D.C. tied at a game apiece. Justin Turner led off with a ground-rule double that hopped into the right field stands, and with two down, the Nats intentionally walked Muncy to play the matchup against right-handed-hitting Will Smith, who drew a walk.
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