Nats ride early offense, then bullpen to 8-3 victory in Game 3

LOS ANGELES - They played a four-hour game Sunday afternoon in cold, windy D.C., then flew across the country, then woke up and played another four-hour game Monday afternoon in warm, sun-baked L.A.

But this is the postseason, and you do whatever is required of you this time of the year, physical and mental toll and sleep patterns cast aside for the moment. And right now, the Nationals are doing whatever is asked of them in an attempt to win the first playoff series in club history.

Score four runs in the top of the third? Pull Gio Gonzalez after 4 1/3 innings? Ask the bullpen to churn out 4 2/3 scoreless innings after all the work that group already put in Friday and Sunday? Tack some huge insurance runs in the ninth against an All-Star closer? Yep, the Nationals did all that today, and the end result was a wholly satisfying 8-3 victory over the Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.

harper-point-in-gray-sidebar.jpgAnd now, they've got two shots to win the series outright, either here Tuesday in Game 4 or back in Washington on Thursday in Game 5.

This game was not for the weak-hearted. It was a tense affair until the ninth, with the Nationals battling back from an early 1-0 deficit to take a 4-1 lead thanks to their third-inning explosion against Kenta Maeda. Carlos Ruiz's two-run homer off Gonzalez in the bottom of the fifth brought the Dodgers back to within one run.

Tasked with protecting that slimmest of leads, the Nationals bullpen delivered in impressive fashion. Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez and Shawn Kelley combined to toss 3 2/3 scoreless innings, recording some huge outs along the way.

And then, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman supplied the most-welcome insurance runs via a towering homer and a two-run double off Kenley Jansen in the top of the ninth, the club's second four-run inning of the game.

Mark Melancon, who already was warming when his team led by only a run, went ahead and pitched the bottom of the ninth to finish this one off. And in doing so, that's now 12 1/3 innings of work from Nats relievers in this series without allowing a run.

There was a noticeable lack of energy in the ballpark when the Dodgers took the field shortly after 1 p.m. local time, but that's nothing new in this town, where they famously arrive in the third inning and leave in the seventh.

If they've been paying attention to this series, though, the local fans would've known they better show up for the start lest they miss a big blast by Corey Seager. The rookie shortstop homered to right-center in the top of the first in both Game 1 and Game 2. This time, he didn't quite do that. He merely doubled to right-center, driving home the game's first run.

Likewise, the Nationals for the third straight game managed to strand the bases loaded at some point in the first two innings. The culprit this time was Zimmerman, who struck out on three pitches from Maeda, leaving himself a staggering 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts this season when batting with the bases full.

Zimmerman was hardly the only Nationals batter to struggle against Maeda. Nobody on the current roster had ever faced him before, so it wasn't all that surprising when the Japanese right-hander put up a couple of zeroes to open his afternoon.

But once they all got a look at him, the storyline changed. The Nationals got to Maeda in the top of the third, and in impressive fashion. Trea Turner led off with a single. Werth drove him home with a double down the right field line, Turner narrowly sliding across the plate ahead of the throw. Bryce Harper put a nice, controlled swing on a pitch and lined a soft RBI single to right to give the Nationals their first lead of the day.

And then Anthony Rendon provided the big blast: a 432-foot home run halfway up the bleachers in left-center. Dodger Stadium fell silent as Rendon rounded the bases, the Nationals having taken a 4-1 lead.

It was now incumbent upon Gonzalez to hold that lead, something that has been more than a minor bugaboo for the left-hander all season. Gonzalez did provide that ever-elusive shutdown inning after his teammates scored in the third, and he put up another zero in the fourth. But he faded in the fifth, and then one big blast brought an abrupt end to his afternoon.

Ruiz, the longtime Phillies catcher who had faced Gonzalez 29 previous times in his career, came up to pinch-hit for the Dodgers and promptly sent a 3-1 fastball soaring to left field for a two-run homer. Dusty Baker walked to the mound to remove his starter, Los Angeles had new life down a run and the crowd suddenly had reason to roar after a sluggish start to the day.

This was only the bottom of the fifth, the game already more than two hours old. But there was so much left to go, and all of it would be decided by two bullpens that have figured so prominently in this series.

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