LOS ANGELES - Sean Doolittle was trying to run through the final moments of an epic baseball game that propelled the Nationals to the National League Championship Series for the first time in club history. There was a strikeout of A.J. Pollock. Then a ground ball by Max Muncy. Then Michael A. Taylor’s diving catch of Justin Turner’s sinking liner to center, which had to be reviewed before umpires officially declared the game over. And then a mad celebration, with Doolittle right in the middle of it all. He thinks.
“There’s a lot I don’t remember,” the left-hander said. “I’m going to have to go back and watch.”
In his defense, a whole lot of crazy stuff happened during the Nationals’ 7-3, 10-inning victory over the Dodgers. Anyone who wasn’t able to keep track of it all is certainly excused.
So let’s take this opportunity - as the Nats fly to St. Louis to prepare for Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday night - to run through the most important moments of the greatest game in Nationals history ...
Rendon and Soto go back-to-back
The Nationals went into the top of the eighth trailing 3-1, which is what they always do before going on to win do-or-die postseason games.
(Did you know the three such occurrences in Washington baseball history all featured the exact same plot? In Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, the Senators trailed 3-1, rallied to tie the game in the eighth and eventually beat the Giants in the 12th. In last week’s wild card game, the Nationals trailed 3-1, rallied to take the lead in the eighth and beat the Brewers. And of course, Wednesday night they trailed 3-1, rallied to tie the game in the eighth and then beat the Dodgers in the 10th.)
Clayton Kershaw was on the mound for Los Angeles, but in the visitors’ dugout that wasn’t viewed as a bad thing. The Nats had some success against the future Hall of Famer in Game 2, and despite his overwhelming resume he felt more hittable than Walker Buehler, who was lights-out the entire series.
“I personally knew that he’s always going to be around the zone,” Anthony Rendon said. “He’s always going to be a strike-thrower. And we wanted to be aggressive and just try to put the barrel on it. And we just happened to get him tonight.”
Did they ever. Rendon somehow was able to reach down and get to an 89 mph fastball below his knees and drive it over the left field wall. Then only a minute later, Juan Soto blasted another 89 mph fastball (this one up and in) some 449 feet into the right field bleachers for the most dramatic 1-2 punch in Nationals history.
Soto now has three run-scoring hits this postseason. The first was his three-run single off Josh Hader in the wild card game. The second was a two-run homer off Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. The third was his game-tying homer off Clayton Kershaw in Game 5. Three clutch hits to either tie the game or put his team ahead, against three of the toughest lefties in baseball.
“Back-to-back home runs at this ballpark at night is tough,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Against Clayton Kershaw, it’s even tougher. We got two terrific players. To win these type of games against this type of team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, your stars have to be stars. Our stars were stars tonight, and I think that’s what carried us through.”
The lights-out bullpen
So, which of these teams supposedly had a disastrous bullpen that was going to be their undoing? It didn’t turn out to be the Nationals ‘pen, which may have struggled in the two losses but came up huge otherwise and really took it to another level in Game 5.
After Stephen Strasburg settled down and churned out six innings of three-run ball, the Nationals got two big outs from rookie Tanner Rainey to open the seventh, then four big outs from Patrick Corbin to get through the eighth, then a scoreless ninth from Daniel Hudson, and then a 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th from Doolittle.
Add it all up and Washington relievers faced 14 batters in this game, retiring 12 of them, five via strikeout.
Corbin, in particular, delivered. And only three days after his disastrous relief appearance in Game 3, he was grateful to have his name called again.
“I wanted to, if there was an opportunity,” he said. “You just try to be ready. I have to give Davey (Martinez) a lot of credit for letting me go out there and finishing the seventh and being able to go another inning.”
The rally in the top of the 10th
After going down in order in the ninth against Joe Kelly, the Nationals couldn’t have felt so great taking another crack at the right-hander in the top of the 10th. But they knew they had the best part of their lineup due up, and they knew if they could take the lead there, they could send Doolittle to the mound in the bottom of the inning to try to close out the game. This was the time to do it.
They would get some stellar at-bats throughout the inning. Adam Eaton started it off by drawing a walk, taking a couple of tough pitches with two strikes to reach first base. Rendon then ripped a ball off the wall for a double, his third extra-base hit in the span of five innings.
Now came one of Dave Roberts’ critical decisions, with Soto at the plate. The Dodgers manager had Adam Kolarek warm in the bullpen, and the lefty had owned Soto in three head-to-head battles in this series. But instead Roberts elected to intentionally walk Soto and stick with Kelly to face Howie Kendrick with the bases loaded.
“You’re in a tie ballgame,” Roberts said. “Yeah, you could go to Kolarek. Infield is going to be in. Hope for a punch. But I just felt that Joe had a good chance to put Howie on the ground, and potentially then get Kenley (Jansen) on (Ryan) Zimmerman. And so my thought was to try to get a ground ball right there.”
Kelly didn’t come close to getting a ground ball out of Kendrick. He got a grand slam that forever changed Nationals history.
“It’s funny, earlier in the series I had another player tell me: ‘That gives me the red-ass when guys get walked in front of me,’” Kendrick said with a laugh. “And he ended up hitting a nice homer. As a hitter, you’re like: ‘Man, they’re really going to do that!’ You want to go out and try to make them pay. And I think every guy in this room takes that with a chip on their shoulder, and they’re going to try to do damage.”
The bottom of the 10th
Though they now held a four-run lead, the Nationals still needed three outs from Doolittle, who would have to face the top of the Dodgers lineup. This was no gimme.
“I’ve messed up a couple of four-run leads this year,” Doolittle said. “So I wasn’t taking anything for granted.”
He certainly didn’t pitch like he was. Doolittle blew away A.J. Pollock for the first out, got Max Muncy (who homered off him in Game 2) to ground out and then got Turner to hit a sinking liner to center. Taylor came charging in and made the diving catch.
“That was awesome,” Doolittle said. “He kind of rolled over, and I saw a bunch of guys in the middle, and Trea started going nuts. I looked and our dugout was all on the field already. I was like ‘All right, I guess he caught it!’”
Or did he? Umpires had to go to the replay headset to confirm the catch, briefly putting the celebration on pause.
“Yes, I caught it,” Taylor said.
Yes, he did, as replay confirmed.
For Taylor, who played exceptionally well these last three games in place of the injured Victor Robles, it was a sweet way to seal the series.
“A lot of adrenaline,” he said. “Just going into that inning, having a lead, there’s already a lot of adrenaline and a lot of anticipation. It feels good.”