LOS ANGELES - That the Nationals find themselves here, in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, is not at all surprising. This is the norm for this franchise, having now been in this exact position four times in the last eight years, three in the last four.
And yet this one feels entirely different than those that came before. The end result - a heartbreaking loss, after leading at some point - may wind up feeling familiar. Too familiar. But the circumstances entering this Game 5 do not.
The obvious difference: This Game 5 is on the road. All of the previous ones were played on South Capitol Street.
The less obvious difference: The pressure’s not on the Nationals this time. It’s on the other guys.
Sure, the Nats desperately want to win this game, finally advance to the NL Championship Series, finally get over the figurative hump that Davey Martinez turned literal when he brought camels to his first spring training as manager. Another loss would be difficult.
But that would pale in comparison to the reaction around here if the Dodgers lose tonight. The 106-win Dodgers. The back-to-back NL champion Dodgers. The nothing-short-of-our-first-World-Series-title-in-31-years-is-acceptable Dodgers.
“We both have had really good years and put ourselves in this situation,” Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday. “So I honestly don’t think that, given our past, we feel any more pressure than they do to win a Game 5. It’s a must-win for both teams.”
Is it, though? The Dodgers have far more at stake tonight than the Nationals, who with only a couple of blips along the way have played free and loose for months now.
“That’s kind of how our season’s been,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “We’ve played with our backs against the wall since May, when everybody was counting us out. It’s no different now. We’re playing to move on, obviously, but we just have to go out there and play baseball. It doesn’t change because it’s Game 5. We still have to go out there and hit the ball, catch the ball and pitch the ball. We’ve just got to go out and have fun.”
And if all else fails, just sit back and hope Stephen Strasburg does his thing again.
As good as Max Scherzer was in Game 4 - and he was really good - the Dodgers have to be more fearful of Strasburg, based on what he did to them in Game 2 - when he carried a perfect game into the fifth inning and a shutout into the sixth - and based on what he’s done throughout his postseason career - 0.64 ERA, 0.821 WHIP, 38 strikeouts, four walks, zero homers in 28 innings pitched.
That 0.64 ERA, by the way, ranks second on the all-time postseason ERA leaderboard (minimum 25 innings pitched), sandwiched between Dave Dravecky (0.35) and Trevor Rosenthal (0.69). Yes, that Trevor Rosenthal.
Remember how the Nationals voluntarily decided not to let Strasburg pitch in the 2012 postseason? Obviously, you do. Why did they do that? Because they felt it would help ensure he’d have many more opportunities to pitch for them in future postseasons.
He’s done his part so far. And tonight he has a chance to lift his team to new heights.
“I’ve said this before: I think it’s something that you train for, you dream about as a kid and you want to have those opportunities to just see how your stuff stacks up,” Strasburg said. “When you’re in the moment and stuff, it’s a great feeling, just going out there and competing against the best.”
He’ll be competing against one of the best tonight in Walker Buehler, who in Game 1 held the Nationals to one hit in six innings and in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series held the Red Sox to two hits in seven innings. That’s no simple challenge for a Nats lineup that has had a few big hits in the last week but has struggled to consistently produce at the plate against postseason pitching.
The formula for success, though, will be exactly the same as it was Monday night. Try to get an early lead, and possibly tack on a few more runs. Push Strasburg as far as he can go and hope he completes seven innings. Ask Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson to finish it off.
If it doesn’t work out, or if that’s still not enough to get the job done ... well, the Nationals will head home for the winter disappointed yet proud of what they accomplished this season.
Not that anyone inside that clubhouse expects to be heading home just yet.
“We just believe that we’ve got some mojo and that we can win,” Scherzer said. “We just believe in this clubhouse, what we have here, what we built here. And we have talked about it, that we just have an ‘it factor.’ We just know we’ve got 25 guys that are going to lay it on the line every single time for each other. And that’s hard to replicate.”