The Nationals’ run last October, when viewed in its entirety, was thrilling. That doesn’t mean every single game along the way matched that description.
There were a few clunkers mixed into those 17 postseason games. And maybe the biggest clunker of them all came only 48 hours after the euphoric National League wild card win over the Brewers.
Flying high from that dramatic victory, the Nats headed west to open their best-of-five NL Division Series with the powerhouse Dodgers. And if you were among those who seriously doubted they could topple the 106-win NL West champs, Game 1 only confirmed your fears.
Behind a dominant pitching performance by Walker Buehler and three relievers, a shaky start by Patrick Corbin and some nightmarish work by the underbelly of the Nationals bullpen, the Dodgers cruised to a 6-0 win on Oct. 3.
But the intention here is to re-watch the entire postseason, and that means re-watching the bad games, too. So let’s slog our way through this one and look ahead to the underrated classic that was Game 2 the following night ...
Dodger Stadium was still bathed in sunlight as the TBS broadcast went on the air at 5:30 p.m. local time. Ernie Johnson and Jeff Francoeur were back in the booth, with Francoeur referring to the Nats as a “little bit of an underdog this year, but I’ll tell you, they’ve got their hands full with the Dodgers.” Just before first pitch, they tossed it down to their on-field reporter for the series, Alex Chappell. Yes, MASN’s own Alex Chappell, who probably threw Nats fans for a loop when she only talked about the Dodgers in her first segment. (Hey, she’s a pro. She couldn’t show any bias on a national broadcast.)
The game began, the Nationals wearing their gray road jerseys for what would be the only time the entire postseason. And very quickly it became apparent they were going to have a tough time at the plate against Buehler, who opened the series by striking out Trea Turner on a 99 mph high fastball and later striking out Anthony Rendon looking at a 3-2 slider down and away.
With both Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg having pitched two nights earlier in the wild card game, the Game 1 starting assignment went to Corbin, making his long-awaited postseason debut. It did not begin how he envisioned.
Corbin was all over the place in the bottom of the first. The Dodgers put only one ball in play in the entire inning, but they didn’t need to because Corbin walked four batters, including three in a row at one point. The lefty simply couldn’t throw his fastball for strikes, and so L.A.’s experienced hitters knew they could lay off his trademark slider because those rarely touch the strike zone anyway.
The inning could’ve been a complete disaster, but Corey Seager bailed out Corbin by swinging at a first-pitch slider out of the zone with the bases loaded and grounding out to end the frame with only one run across the plate. Corbin wound up throwing 31 pitches, but he returned to the dugout staring at only a 1-0 deficit.
That one run felt like a lot more, though, because the Nationals could not do squat at the plate against Buehler. Juan Soto ripped a single to right-center to lead off the top of the second, but that was the only hit Buehler would surrender over his six sparkling innings.
There was one potential rally in the fourth, with Adam Eaton and Rendon drawing back-to-back walks and (after Soto just got under a pitch and flied out to deep center) Howie Kendrick drawing another walk to load the bases with two outs. But Asdrúbal Cabrera took perhaps the Nats’ worst at-bat of the entire postseason, swinging at a first-pitch curveball below the zone and then tapping another comparable pitch back to the mound for an easy, inning-ending groundout.
Remarkably, the Nationals were in this game for six innings. Corbin managed to settle down after his harrowing bottom of the first and pitch quite well. He gave up his only other run in the bottom of the fifth not because of his own mistake but because Kendrick let Max Muncy’s sharp grounder go right through his legs at first base. It was Kendrick’s third misplay of the night, two of them ruled errors, and it left more than a few fans calling for the veteran to be benched. (How glad would they end up being that Davey Martinez never heeded their advice?)
The deficit remained 2-0 heading to the seventh, so there was still hope for the Nats, who (as the announcers kept pointing out) had a knack for pulling off late-game rallies all summer long and had just done it to the Brewers two nights earlier. But it just never happened. After Buehler departed, lefty specialist Adam Kolarek made Soto look absolutely silly during a three-pitch strikeout to open the seventh. (That’s a matchup you knew you’d be seeing a lot in this series.) Kenta Maeda then retired all five batters he faced before Joe Kelly pitched a scoreless ninth to wrap it up.
The real ugliness, though, came in the bottom of the seventh and eighth, when the Dodgers blew a once-close game wide open and fans had more reason to question Martinez’s managerial decisions.
Tanner Rainey opened the seventh and departed with runners on first and third. NL MVP Cody Bellinger was up next, and all eyes turned toward the visitors’ bullpen to see if Doolittle was coming in. Yes, the Nats trailed, but the game was still within reach and they had no other lefties in the ‘pen.
It wasn’t Doolittle who entered. It was Fernando Rodney. Martinez would explain later he liked the 42-year-old’s changeup against the Dodgers’ left-handed sluggers, but that’s not the pitch that defined the inning. Instead, Rodney turned to his fastball in the biggest moments. He managed to catch Bellinger by surprise with a 2-2 heater and struck him out looking for the second out. But after walking Chris Taylor to load the bases, he left a fastball in the zone for Muncy, who ripped a single to right to bring home two huge insurance runs.
But wait, there was still more carnage to witness. With his team now trailing 4-0 in the eighth, Martinez gave the ball to Hunter Strickland. And, well, you know how that went. Strickland faced five batters. Two of them (Gavin Lux and Joc Pederson) homered. Two more sent drives that were caught at the warning track.
That pretty much did it. The Nationals trailed by six runs, which is the same number of hits they amassed in their first 16 offensive innings of this postseason. Aside from Soto’s big hit in the wild card game, they really hadn’t shown any ability to deliver in clutch situations. And given the powerhouse team they were now facing in the NLDS, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if this was all going to end the same way all the previous postseason trips ended for this club.
But just moments before the final out was recorded, the broadcast cut to a quick shot of a familiar face watching from the Nats dugout: Strasburg. He would be on the mound the next night for Game 2. And that thought alone should’ve been enough to bring some renewed hope for the underdog’s chances.