I’ll admit I didn’t remember much about Game 3 of the National League Division Series. I remembered it was a blowout. I remembered Aníbal Sánchez started and then Patrick Corbin had a disastrous night in relief. I remembered it was the last time the Nationals wore anything other than their navy blue alternate jerseys. (They wore white.) But that’s about all I remembered before re-watching the game yesterday.
So imagine my surprise when I realized this actually was a compelling ballgame. And that Corbin was oh-so-close to avoiding disaster several times during the fateful top of the sixth that came to define the Nats’ 10-4 loss to the Dodgers.
This was the only time the Nationals blew a lead after the first inning during their entire postseason run. The final tally suggests the game wasn’t very competitive. On the contrary. The Nationals led 2-0 after the first inning and 2-1 after the fifth. And even in the wake of the disastrous top of the sixth when Corbin and Wander Suero combined to give up seven runs, they still had a real chance to get right back in the game in the bottom of the inning when they loaded the bases with nobody out.
Also lost from the memory banks at the end of this 3-hour, 58-minute marathon: Sánchez pitched exceptionally well, setting the stage for his no-hit bid five nights later in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series in St. Louis.
The wily veteran got himself into a bases-loaded jam in the top of the first but wriggled his way out of it by striking out both Cody Bellinger and A.J. Pollock with two brilliantly executed butterfly changeups that made those sluggers look silly. The only downside: Sánchez needed 28 pitches to get through that first frame, and that would have ramifications later on.
Sánchez retook the mound for the top of the second with a 2-0 lead now in hand, thanks to Juan Soto’s two-run blast to center off Hyun-Jin Ryu, the kid’s first of five postseason homers (all coming off either former Cy Young Award winners or 2019 Cy Young finalists). The right-hander then found the kind of groove that’s rare enough on a random Tuesday in July let alone in a critical postseason game in October.
Sánchez struck out the side in the top of the second, then struck out Joc Pederson with another butterfly changeup to open the third, his fifth straight K. He would add two more strikeouts in the fourth, giving him eight in total, though his pitch count was now up to 71. TBS cameras found Corbin watching from the bullpen, and it seemed only a matter of time before the lefty would begin warming up.
The Nationals lineup, meanwhile, gave itself some opportunities to extend the two-run lead but failed to capitalize. Kurt Suzuki reached for a pitch down and away and grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to kill a potential rally in the fourth. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Eaton each hit the ball hard with runners on base in the fifth, which ultimately ended with two more men stranded.
By that point, the Dodgers had cut the deficit to 2-1, Sánchez having made his one true mistake of the game in the top of the fifth: an 0-2 fastball down the pipe to Max Muncy, who launched it to right-center for a solo homer.
His pitch count at 87 and his spot in the lineup coming up, Sánchez got a round of high-fives in the dugout at the end of the fifth, as manager Davey Martinez mapped out a bullpen plan that ideally would’ve seen Corbin, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson combine to record the final 12 outs.
The result would be anything but ideal, and Doolittle and Hudson would never so much as begin stretching because their services were never needed.
Corbin actually displayed much better command than he did in his first inning of Game 1, when he issued four walks to dig his team into a quick hole. He got ahead in the count 0-2 to five of the first seven batters he faced, but somehow he retired only two of them.
Even so, Corbin was in prime position to end the inning with only one batter reaching base when he got David Freese to ground weakly to the right side of the infield. Off the bat, it looked like a routine grounder to second. Just one problem: The second baseman (Brian Dozier, making his only start of the postseason) was shifted around near the bag in anticipation of Freese pulling the ball. And so the perfectly placed squibber turned into a two-out single, and the floodgates opened up moments later.
Corbin got ahead of Russell Martin 0-2, but couldn’t put him away. Martin would belt a 2-2 slider over the plate to left field for a two-run double to give the Dodgers the lead. After walking Chris Taylor, Corbin again got ahead of a batter (Enrique Hernández) with an 0-2 count only to eventually hang a slider and watch it turn into a two-run double that made it a 5-2 game.
That was Corbin’s 35th pitch of the inning, so that was it for him. But wouldn’t you know Suero would do his best imitation of his pitching mate, get ahead of Justin Turner 0-2 before running the count to 3-2 and grooving a cutter right down Broadway for a three-run homer to complete the massive rally.
All told, the Dodgers scored seven runs in the inning, all of them scoring on extra-base hits with two strikes and two outs. The Nationals easily could’ve jogged back to the dugout still leading 2-1, or perhaps trailing 3-2. Instead, they were now waist-deep in an 8-2 hole.
And yet they still gave themselves a chance to come back. They immediately loaded the bases in the bottom of the sixth against Joe Kelly (perhaps a harbinger of things to come later in the week in Game 5) and scored one run on a wild pitch. Another walk loaded the bases again with nobody out, and as Asdrúbal Cabrera stepped up to pinch-hit for Dozier, the crowd stood and roared, hardly giving up on this game.
Those roars quickly morphed into groans. Cabrera lofted a fly ball to right, deep enough to bring home another run. But Howie Kendrick, who was on second base at the time, hesitated before tagging up and wound up getting caught in a rundown that killed all the momentum. At that moment, in the wake of an awful TOOTBLAN, the majority opinion of fans on Kendrick was that he was hurting the Nats more than he was helping them. (That opinion would very much change a few nights later.)
So the Nationals still trailed 8-4 heading to the seventh, and the remaining events of consequence can be condensed into a few bullet points:
* Fernando Rodney threw a 31-pitch, scoreless inning of relief. Yes, 31 pitches without giving up a run. The ultimate Fernando Rodney Experience.
* Gerardo Parra got his first at-bat of the postseason, so the national audience got to watch the first “Baby Shark” event of the postseason. (He grounded out.)
* Adam Kolarek bested Soto for the third straight game, striking him out on a full-count fastball down and away.
* Hunter Strickland gave up another homer, his ninth in 13 career postseason appearances.
When it was finally over, Ernie Johnson noted the Dodgers had not lost back-to-back games since Sept. 6-7. If the Nationals were going to win this series and finally get over the NLDS hump, they were going to have to pull off that feat.