Behind biggest stars, Nationals force another Game 5 (updated)

The Nationals’ chances of beating the Dodgers in this National League Division Series have always rested on the shoulders of the very best players on their roster. They don’t have the depth to compete with the 106-win champions of the NL West, but they do have the star power at the top of their roster to make them sweat.

And so with their season hanging by a thread tonight in Game 4 of the best-of-five series, the Nats turned to the best they had to keep the 2019 campaign alive and well for at least two more days.

“I’ve been in this game a long time,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And big moments, big players seem to come through.”

They certainly did tonight on South Capitol Street.

Zimmerman-HR-Swing-Blue-NLDS-Sidebar.jpgMax Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner, churned out seven dominant innings and gutted his way out of a huge jam in his final frame. Anthony Rendon, the majors’ RBI leader and an MVP candidate, drove in three runs in three at-bats. Ryan Zimmerman, the owner of just about every franchise record in the book, belted a gargantuan three-run homer. And then Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, the only reliable members of a suspect bullpen, combined to record the final six outs needed to secure a 6-1 victory that will send the Nationals on a jubilant flight west for Game 5 on Wednesday night.

Yes, the Nationals will once again play a winner-take-all game in search of their first berth in the NL Championship Series. They lost the previous three times they were in this scenario - in 2012, 2016 and 2017 - but they have long maintained this team is different from those.

“We wouldn’t have it any other way, I guess,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “That’s kind of how our season’s been. We’ve played with our backs against the wall since May when everybody was counting us out. It’s no different now.”

If nothing else, the Nationals will have one more of their very best starting that game at Dodger Stadium: Stephen Strasburg, who will face Los Angeles’ dominant right-hander Walker Buehler, with future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw available out of the bullpen.

“I think it’s something that you train for, you dream about as a kid,” Strasburg said. “You want to have those opportunities to just see how your stuff stacks up.”

Fortunately, the Nationals didn’t need Strasburg tonight because Scherzer was at his very best and pitched deep enough into the night to make the use of another starter unnecessary. The ace right-hander gave up an early homer, then buckled down and posted six straight zeros, saving his best for last.

Perhaps finally hitting a wall in the top of the seventh, Scherzer loaded the bases with one out. His pitch count stood at 99. Doolittle was warm in the bullpen.

“I was just gassed,” the starter admitted. “I was out. I was emptying the tank, giving everything I got.”

Scherzer lives by a simple mantra: The final 10 pitches he throws define his outings. He believes it’s far more important how he finishes than how he starts. Well, he did himself proud tonight. He won an eight-pitch battle with pinch-hitter Chris Taylor, finally striking him out with a 3-2 slider. And then given a chance to face the left-handed Joc Pederson (whose seventh-inning homer off him spoiled Game 5 in 2016), Scherzer induced a harmless grounder on his second pitch.

He stalked off the mound to a thunderous roar from the less-than-capacity but still raucous crowd of 36,847, pitches 100-109 indeed having defined his start.

“I could say there was 33-34 guys pushing the car behind him,” Martinez said. “I mean, he was at his wit’s end right there. But like I said, another guy, veteran guy, big moment, comes through.”

The ballpark had a decidedly non-postseason vibe when the game began, the early start time on a Monday evening and the threat of rain producing a crowd that was far under capacity and not nearly as amped up as it was for the past week’s two other games here.

And when Justin Turner mashed Scherzer’s 10th pitch of the night over the left field bullpen for a quick 1-0 lead, a sense of unease began to fill the place.

Scherzer seemed to be holding back some early on, his fastball in the mid-90s instead of the upper 90s he flashed in both the wild card game and his relief appearance at Dodger Stadium. That was by design, though. Knowing his team needed innings out of him tonight more than anything, he seemed to be making sure he was throwing quality strikes and hoping for weak contact.

“I knew I needed to make a full-on start,” he said. “There’s been times ... like, I know there’s times in the regular season where you’re not fresh, where you come into a game and you’ve got to conserve where you’re at, try to almost pitch more. And today was kind of one those days, given that I pitched in Game 2.”

It worked, because three innings in, Scherzer’s pitch count stood at only 39 (30 of those strikes). And then he began dialing it up again.

The right-hander mowed through the Dodgers lineup in the fourth and fifth, striking out five of six batters during one stretch in which he began reaching the upper 90s with his fastball

“He’s smart, man,” Suzuki said. “He knows what he’s doing. If he wants to try to strike everybody out, he’s going to strike guys out. I think he knew we needed a big game out of him. We needed kind of a longer game out of him. So he paced himself a little bit. And as you could tell, toward the middle innings he started to ramp it up a little bit. And to finish off the game, just emptied the tank. He’s very intelligent. He knows what he’s doing.

“He might look like a maniac out there, but he’s smart.”

And in being both maniacal and brainy, Scherzer gave his teammates a chance to take advantage of his effort.

Which they did. Eventually. Clutch hits have been at a premium to the Nationals during this postseason run so far, and they didn’t come easily tonight, either, at least not early. They did get a third-inning run on a Rendon sacrifice fly, but they also left the bases loaded and squandered an opportunity to really do damage to 39-year-old lefty Rich Hill before he was pulled after only 2 2/3 innings.

Then came the bottom of the fifth, and finally the big breakthrough this team sought. It began with some small ball: Trea Turner led off with a single, then Adam Eaton bunted him to second, surely to the chagrin of anyone who’s ever read a run expectancy chart. But when Rendon lined a single over the shortstop’s head, the go-ahead run scored and offensive philosophy didn’t seem to matter too much.

Of course, it certainly helped that the Nationals still wound up with a big number, thanks to one really big swing.

With two on and two out, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts summoned Pedro Báez to face Zimmerman. The matchup favored the pitcher: Zimmerman was 0-for-5 with a walk and three strikeouts in his career against Báez.

In this moment, that meant nothing. Baez tried to throw a 97 mph high fastball past Zimmerman, and the 35-year-old didn’t miss it. He drove the ball high in the air and deep to center field, and after a few seconds of silent anticipation, the ballpark exploded as the ball landed on the dark green batter’s eye beyond the fence.

Zimmerman gave first base coach Tim Bogar a vicious high five and then soaked in his joyous trip around the bases.

“That’s why sports are special,” the veteran slugger said. “You can’t replicate it. That’s why you work so hard during the season, offseason: for times like that. And you fail a lot in those times as well. So I think when you do succeed and the team succeeds, you take some time to cherish that a little bit.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Zimmerman had made it clear he’s not ready to start reminiscing about his career, that he still has plenty more games to play for this franchise.

We don’t know precisely how many more, but we do know the original and forever face of the franchise will get to don the uniform at least once more in yet another winner-take-all game Wednesday night on the West Coast.

“That’s why you play the game,” Zimmerman said. “This is what you live for. ... Going to L.A. for Game 5, and Walker Buehler versus Stephen Strasburg, with Kershaw probably available in the ‘pen. I mean, this is why you play the game. This is what we live for.”

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