LOS ANGELES - We can talk about the Nationals pitching staff - their dominant starters, their shaky relievers - and how they are deployed in the postseason until the cows come home. Until their hitters start, you know, hitting, it won't matter much.
Game 1 of the National League Division Series saw Patrick Corbin battle disastrous command early to still produce a quality start. It saw a trio of setup men (Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland) fail to keep the game close in the seventh and eighth innings while the team's two best relievers watched from the bullpen. It saw Howie Kendrick suffer through his worst defensive game of the season at the worst time.
But most importantly, it saw the Nationals lineup rendered completely impotent by Walker Buehler and three Dodgers relievers. Collectively, those four hurlers in the iconic blue caps and white uniforms shut out what should be a dangerous offensive team, the Nats managing only two hits during a 6-0 loss that set an ominous tone for this best-of-five series.
"Just forget about it and play," Juan Soto said. "We got four more. So we've got to keep playing good baseball. It don't matter what happens today. We've got to win the series. Win the series, and come to fight tomorrow."
The Nationals never really gave themselves a chance to fight tonight. Soto led off the second with a single to center, then was wiped out on a line drive double play. Three batters drew walks in the fourth, but AsdrÃºbal Cabrera quickly swung through one curveball and then tapped the next one back to the mound to thwart that rally.
Trea Turner led off the ninth with a double, but that's it. That's all the Nats did at the plate. Credit to Buehler, who proved he deserved this Game 1 assignment on a staff that will see a future Hall of Famer (Clayton Kershaw) and a Cy Young Award contender (Hyun-Jin Ryu) start the next two games of this series.
But the Nationals' woeful offensive output so far this postseason is cause for concern. Soto's clutch hit during Tuesday night's emotional wild card win over the Brewers aside, this team has done nothing at the plate this week. In 17 offensive innings, the Nats have scored four runs on seven hits and four walks.
"I think we've kind of done that the last two games, is just tried way too hard from the start, especially offensively," Turner said. "I think when the first guy gets out in an inning during the regular season, we don't think about it. We scored plenty of runs with one out, two outs and whatnot. I feel like right now we're trying a little too hard. Just have a little bit more fun and continue what we were doing."
Along those lines, the Nationals would do well not to help the opposing pitching staff out the way they have this week.
"Honestly, I think we're facing some really good pitchers, one," manager Davey Martinez said. "Two, we've got to get the ball in the strike zone. For me, that's the key. When we swing at balls in the strike zone, we put the ball in play. That's what we have done all year."
They'll have to find a way to do that and flip the script Friday night in Game 2, needing not only to produce against Kershaw but also to get another dominant start from Stephen Strasburg three days after he threw 34 pitches in relief versus Milwaukee.
Corbin waited a long time to make his postseason debut, having been on the Diamondbacks' 2017 NLDS roster but left to watch from the dugout while the Dodgers swept them in three games. He spoke Wednesday about how much he had been looking forward to this, and his steady demeanor and low heart rate seemed to make him an ideal candidate for this assignment.
Then came Corbin's first career postseason inning, a nightmare 19-minute frame that included four walks, 31 pitches and only 13 strikes.
The lefty kept throwing everything toward the same location - down and in to righties, down and away to lefties - and the Dodgers weren't biting. He lives out there with his slider, but if he can't throw his fastball over the plate, hitters aren't going to offer at his wipeout breaking ball.
"I just thought mechanically, I was rushing a little bit," he said. "Was kind of cutting my fastball."
And yet in spite of all that, Corbin somehow escaped that harrowing first inning with only one run crossing the plate. It would prove to be the theme of his night.
Corbin found enough of a groove to get through the second, third and fourth innings unscathed. And he should've been out of the fifth as well when he got Max Muncy to hit a sharp grounder to first with two on and two out. But Kendrick, who committed only one error in 304 chances at first base this season, let the ball squirt through his legs for his second error of this game.
Cody Bellinger scored easily to extend the Dodgers' lead to 2-0, and they might have kept it going had third base coach Dino Ebel not made a curious decision to wave Chris Taylor around and sentence him to death at the plate to end the inning.
"You try to make every play, and tonight it just didn't work out," Kendrick said. "That is going to happen in this game. Unfortunately, it's in the postseason. But you know, I wouldn't change anything about the way I tried to make that play. It's one of those plays that you just miss it. You just try to suck it up and hope you make it up on the other end."
Corbin would wind up going six innings, allowing only those two runs (one of them unearned) and striking out nine. All in all, it was a solid performance, one that gave his team a chance to win.
"After six, being down by two, I was keeping us in the game," he said. "Our offense has come back from bigger deficits than that."
Alas, the Nationals bullpen tripled the deficit. Down 2-0, Martinez entrusted the seventh to Rainey, the hard-throwing rookie who struck out A.J. Pollock but then walked Joc Pederson and gave up a bloop single to Justin Turner.
As MVP candidate Bellinger strode to the plate, Martinez emerged from the dugout and signaled to the bullpen. It was a scenario that called for a lefty, and seeing how Sean Doolittle is the only lefty the Nationals have, that seemed to be the move.
Instead, Rodney sauntered onto the field. And though the 42-year-old nearly wriggled his way out of a bases-loaded jam after walking Taylor, he wound up surrendering a two-run single to Muncy that extended the Dodgers' lead to 4-0.
"I liked the matchup again, with the changeups on the lefties at that particular moment," Martinez said. "He had two outs. You know, he got bases loaded. I thought he would throw another changeup, and Muncy's a good hitter. And he actually didn't throw a bad pitch. It's just Muncy put the ball in play. But Rodney's been in situations like that and got big outs."
Strickland then poured even more gasoline on the already smoldering embers by allowing two towering home runs in the eighth, not to mention two more drives that missed clearing the fence by a couple of feet.
By that point, the Nationals had little hope of getting back in this one. They've been known to mount an inspiring late rally or two, but the way they hit tonight (and for seven innings Tuesday night) that seemed far too daunting a task.
Now, needing to win three of four to take this series, that task gets even tougher. It's up to the players who have been here before not to give in to the pressure.
"Look around," Turner said. "I don't care what the score is or what situation we're in. This is fun. That's why we play the game. Realize that, and hopefully tomorrow we come out and play a little better, but have a little more fun."
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