There were two ways for the Nationals to look at their offensive performance in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
The glass-half-full way: They put pressure on Clayton Kershaw all night, with nine men reaching base against the Dodgers ace, who was pulled after only five innings. And they kept that pressure up against the Los Angeles bullpen, ultimately giving themselves 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position during the course of a game they initially trailed by four runs.
The glass-half-empty way: They had Kershaw on the ropes and couldn't deliver the knockout blow. They produced only one hit with a runner in scoring position. And so they lost 4-3 and dug themselves into an early hole in this best-of-five series.
So which way is it going to be?
"I mean, we got down 4-0 to one of the game's best pitchers. We worked him really good and we answered back and knocked him out of the game after five innings," left fielder Jayson Werth said. "So there's a lot to take away that we did on a positive side. Obviously, we had some opportunities and we didn't get it done. But to start the series, get down four runs and battle back, I think there's a lot of positives we can take away."
Were this a Friday night game in April or June or even early September, the Nationals could legitimately afford to take the upbeat view and believe this was an encouraging sign of good things yet to come.
Problem is, they can't afford to do that now. There are simply not enough baseball games remaining on the calendar to take the long-range view.
"We had him on the ropes a couple times," manager Dusty Baker said. "And, you know, the big hit just escaped us."
This, of course, is what October baseball is all about. The Nationals learned this in their 2012 NLDS loss to the Cardinals, and they certainly learned it in their 2014 NLDS loss to the Giants (when they scored a total of nine runs in four games and consistently failed to deliver clutch hits).
The opportunities abounded tonight, and nobody was presented with more opportunities than Danny Espinosa. The No. 7-hitting shortstop has long established his reputation as an all-or-nothing guy at the plate. He homered 24 times this season. He also hit .209 overall and struck out 174 times (second-most in the league).
Three times in a span of four innings in this game, Espinosa came up to bat with two men on base. And three times he struck out against Kershaw, facing 12 total pitches, fouling off only two and whiffing altogether on five of them (including a strike three in the third inning that was 14 inches above the top of the strike zone, according to BrooksBaseball.net.
"I always felt comfortable with him," Espinosa said of Kershaw. "He just made his pitches. He made his pitches in on the plate, and he didn't make a pitch out over to do a lot with. ... Everything that for the most part guys hit, he made a little mistake out over the plate, and they were able to get the barrel to it. He made good pitches on me."
Espinosa didn't get a fourth opportunity to do something at the plate. Baker sent Stephen Drew up to pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the eighth, though Drew popped up on the first pitch he saw.
"It's not the first time this has happened this year, but then Espinosa can turn around and hit the next pitch out of the ballpark," said Baker, who acknowledged his starting shortstop will remain in the lineup for Game 2 against lefty Rich Hill. "That's what's kind of frustrating ... he was swinging at balls, out of the zone. And then balls in the zone, he wasn't catching up to it. His swing was long tonight."
Espinosa was hardly the only member of the Nationals lineup to come up short in big spots. Anthony Rendon's two-out, two-run single in the third was the team's only hit with a man in scoring position the entire game. Trea Turner struck out three times in his first career postseason game. Ryan Zimmerman, despite hits in his first two at-bats, lined out to right with two on in the fifth. Chris Heisey, pinch-hitting with the tying run on second and two outs in the eighth, swung at what probably would have been ball four high and then took strike three at the knees.
And then there was Daniel Murphy's mistake. Not at the plate but on the bases. After drawing a one-out walk in the seventh, he surprisingly tried to steal second off Dodgers right-hander Pedro Baez, only to be thrown out, quashing that potential rally.
Murphy and Baker both said there was no signs missed by anyone; Murphy was running on his own, trying to take advantage of Baez's slow delivery.
"I thought he was slow enough for me to get (to second). Unfortunately, he wasn't," said Murphy, who was starting for the first time in three weeks due to a buttocks strain. "There's only two choices on that play. It's either be safe or don't run. And I can't get thrown out right there. It cost me an at-bat in the ninth inning, as well, running into an out on the bases."
Whatever the reason, whether poor approach at the plate or poor decisions on the bases, the Nationals knew they missed a golden opportunity to take the first game of this series. They could've beaten Kershaw. Instead, they now need to beat Hill on Saturday afternoon to avoid falling into an ominous 0-2 hole in the best-of-five series.
"I think the way we battled definitely shows the way we go about it," right fielder Bryce Harper said. "We're never down when we're down, and we're never ahead when we're ahead. That's the game of baseball. We had some great at-bats against Kershaw. Then, their bullpen came in, and I thought we had some great at-bats. We had some big opportunities to get stuff done and just couldn't connect. There's nothing we can do about it tonight. We'll go back tomorrow and see if we can split."