Home confinement re-watch: 2019 NLDS Game 2

Confession time: My favorite game of the 2019 postseason wasn’t the wild card game. It wasn’t Game 5 of the National League Division Series. It wasn’t the pennant clincher over the Cardinals. And it wasn’t Game 6 or 7 of the World Series in Houston.

It was Game 2 of the NLDS at Dodger Stadium. Seriously.

This was an absolutely fantastic ballgame, overstuffed with star power, clutch performances, bold managerial decisions, a surprise relief appearance from a three-time Cy Young Award winner and enough tension in the bottom of the ninth to cause a sudden run on beta blockers at pharmacies throughout Southern California and the DMV. It certainly felt that way in person at Chavez Ravine on the evening of Oct. 4. The question was: Would it still feel that way re-watching it on television 5 1/2 months later?

The answer was a resounding yes. Though the game dragged a little bit during the middle innings, everything else lived up to the reputation. And that bottom of the ninth ... well, we’ll get to that in just a while.

From the get-go, the narrative from the Nationals’ side was clear. This was a must-win game. They could not afford to head home down 0-2 to the Dodgers. They knew they had Stephen Strasburg on the mound. They also knew they needed to manufacture some runs off Clayton Kershaw.

And they did just that in the top of the first (while wearing their navy blue alternate jerseys for the first time in the postseason, by the way). Trea Turner ripped Kershaw’s very first pitch of the game down the third base line for a leadoff double, and now the pressure was on. Adam Eaton may have killed the momentum with the first of his many October bunt attempts - he popped this one up to give away an out - but the Nats didn’t let up. Anthony Rendon took a 3-2 curveball below the zone for a walk, and Juan Soto (who was booed as he came up to bat) got hit by a 1-2 pitch to load the bases for Howie Kendrick.

Kendrick was coming off a wretched Game 1 in which he had three misplays at first base and went hitless at the plate. But Davey Martinez wanted his veteran, professional hitter in the lineup no matter what, so he moved him to second base and trusted him to deliver a big hit in a big spot. And that’s exactly what Kendrick did, sending a sharp grounder through the left side of the infield for an RBI single to give the Nats a quick 1-0 lead.

They would squander an opportunity for a really big inning, but they would keep the pressure on in the top of the second, getting back-to-back, two-out RBI hits from Eaton (funny how effective he was against lefties last October when he was actually allowed to swing away) and Rendon to extend the lead to 3-0.

The offense, which had done nothing in Game 1, had done its part in Game 2. Now it was up to Strasburg to make that early lead hold up. And boy did the right-hander hold up his end of the bargain.

Scherzer-Delivers-Blue-NLDS-LA-Sidebar.jpgPitching only 72 hours after he tossed three scoreless innings in relief of Max Scherzer in the wild card game, Strasburg put together a peak performance in L.A. His fastball was electric. His curveball was sharp. His changeup was devastating. He retired the side in the first, the second, the third and the fourth and was one pitch away from doing it in the fifth before rookie catcher Will Smith lined a 2-2 curveball to left for a single, the Dodgers’ first baserunner of the night after 14 consecutive outs.

Only moments before Strasburg surrendered that hit, TBS cut to a shot of a group of relievers watching from the Nationals bullpen. That group included one major surprise: Scherzer. Was he actually going to pitch in this game, only three days after he started the wild card game and only two days before he was supposed to start Game 3 in D.C.?

It would depend on the score of this game, which remained 3-0 after Kershaw settled down following his shaky start. The Nats did continue to hit balls hard off the lefty, but Ryan Zimmerman and Kurt Suzuki each ripped lasers right at infielders in the top of the sixth, making Victor Robles’ subsequent double off the left field wall all for naught.

Strasburg would finally show signs of fatigue in the bottom of the sixth, which oddly began with “Seven Nation Army” blaring over the sound system. (Did the Dodgers not realize that’s been Strasburg’s warm-up song since he debuted in 2010?) The right-hander gave up a pinch-hit single to Matt Beaty, then a double to Joc Pederson that rolled to the wall in left-center. Justin Turner then lofted a fly ball to right that brought home Beaty and got Los Angeles on the board at last.

Now, with Sean Doolittle warming in the bullpen, Strasburg escaped further damage, snagging a comebacker from A.J. Pollock to end the inning and end his night at 85 pitches.

And so the game moved to the seventh inning and moved to both clubs’ bullpens. That only created a whole new element of drama in the proceedings. A torturous top of the seventh saw Dave Roberts use three relievers (Pedro Báez, Adam Kolarek, Dustin May) and the Nats put two men on base but fail to score. Soto did put forth a much-improved battle vs. Kolarek compared to the previous night, forcing nine pitches before grounding out. But May got Kendrick to ground out with two on and two out, and now it felt like the Nationals’ 3-1 lead was as tenuous as ever as the right field bullpen door swung open.

One night after he wouldn’t use Doolittle to face the lefty portion of the Dodgers lineup down two runs in the bottom of the seventh, Martinez summoned his only southpaw to face that same portion of the L.A. lineup up two runs in the bottom of the seventh. The inning included one jaw-dropping moment (Max Muncy’s towering homer into the bleachers to cut the lead to 3-2) but overall Doolittle looked as good as he had in some time, with a fastball that consistently registered 95-96 and had enough life on it to strike out NL MVP Cody Bellinger.

And Doolittle’s teammates helped him out by finally scoring that insurance run in the top of the eighth. Zimmerman led off with a hustle double, then after Suzuki drew a walk, Robles moved both runners into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. That bit of small ball came at a cost, though. Robles didn’t look right running down the first base line, and sure enough he would come out of the game with a hamstring injury nobody knew at the time would sideline him until Game 3 of the NLCS a full 10 days later.

In that moment, the more important development came when Asdrúbal Cabrera pinch-hit for Doolittle and delivered an RBI single to right on the first pitch he saw. The good news: Cabrera extended the lead to 4-2. The bad news: He inexplicably got himself hung up between first and second bases and was tagged out.

So in from the visitors’ bullpen jogged Scherzer. The pessimist would’ve had instant flashbacks to his disastrous relief appearance in Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS against the Cubs, and sure enough Ernie Johnson mentioned that outing on the broadcast. But that was 2017, and this was 2019, and Scherzer made sure he destroyed that old narrative about his October woes. Like a lion freed from its cage, he proceeded to strike out the side on 14 pitches, two of them registering 99 mph, and stalked off the mound to a dugout full of appreciative teammates and coaches who didn’t know whether to high-five Mad Max or just get out of his way.

Scherzer’s performance was so dominant, it was now fair to wonder if Martinez would bring him back out for the bottom of the ninth. The answer: No chance. This was always going to be a one-inning appearance, so it was Daniel Hudson warming in the ‘pen as the Nats went down quietly in the top of the inning.

And now it was time to break out the Maalox. Or bourbon. Or maybe both.

Pitching with a two-run lead, Hudson had some breathing room. But not for long. Justin Turner drilled his fourth pitch down the right field line for a leadoff double, so now the tying run was at the plate with nobody out. Hudson battled back to strike out Pollock on a 3-2 slider and got Bellinger to pop up down behind third base, where Rendon did his magic and made an over-the-shoulder, falling-to-the-ground catch for the second out.

So with two outs and a runner on second, Muncy stepped to the plate and Martinez made a gesture you rarely see a manager make in that situation: He held up four fingers. He intentionally walked Muncy. Putting the tying run on base. Bringing the winning run to the plate. Talk about onions.

The unconventional move looked even more suspect when Hudson promptly walked Smith on four pitches to load the bases and now put the winning run on first. Dodger Stadium was rocking as Corey Seager stepped up to bat with the game on the line, and back home in D.C. thousands of fans who were still awake past 1 a.m. could only watch helplessly with bedsheets pulled up to their eyelids.

Hudson has admittedly never liked closing, but teammates will tell you he’s well-suited for the job because he has nerves of steel. And boy did he show it during that final at-bat. It lasted eight pitches. The first seven were all fastballs, all on or beyond the outside corner. Hudson kept throwing them, Seager kept fouling them off in a classic one-on-one October battle.

Suzuki then called time and strolled to the mound to discuss pitch selection for the next offering. Would they stick with the outside fastball? Would they try to sneak a slider past an unsuspecting Seager. The two agreed to whatever was suggested, because Suzuki re-took his position behind the plate and never put down a sign. Hudson took a deep breath, came set and delivered ... a slider down and in. Seager had no chance. He whiffed mightily at the pitch for strike three, the crowd groaned and Hudson let out a roar on the mound, knowing he had just knotted the series at one game apiece.

Now that was a compelling ballgame. And though the Nationals still faced a daunting challenge against a powerhouse opponent, this gutsy win showed the Dodgers they weren’t going to go down quietly. This team had something previous Nats teams did not have. It would be five more days before that was officially confirmed. But the seeds were firmly planted on this high-drama evening at Chavez Ravine.

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