The vibe inside Nationals Park early on during Game 4 of last fall’s National League Division Series did not suggest the assembled masses were optimistic there would be a Game 5. An odd 6:40 p.m. first pitch on a Monday night with rain in the forecast and the home team facing elimination led to the first non-sellout in the ballpark’s postseason history. Game 3 the previous night was witnessed by a crowd of 43,423. Game 4 was played before a gathering of only 36,847, with large swaths of empty seats in the second and third decks in right field impossible to ignore.
And when Max Scherzer surrendered yet another first inning homer, the crowd couldn’t help but think it was about to watch the Nationals get eliminated on South Capitol Street for the fourth time in eight years.
Boy, did that vibe change later in the evening, thanks to a much-needed rally, an iconic home run from the face of the franchise and an epic pitching performance from a three-time Cy Young Award winner.
It all worked out well in the end - a 6-1 victory to force Game 5 - but it sure didn’t start out on a positive note. Scherzer, who dug the Nationals into a quick hole in the wild card game after surrendering two early home runs, did it again. Justin Turner mashed a high fastball deep to left in the top of the first, giving the Dodgers a 1-0 lead and continuing a disturbing trend: It was the 11th homer Scherzer allowed in his last nine starts, his third in 6 2/3 innings to begin this postseason.
But that really was Scherzer’s lone mistake for the majority of the game. He quickly re-established the fact he was in complete control of this contest, dialing back his fastball a couple of notches and keeping the potent L.A. lineup flummoxed with some devastating sliders that looked so tantalizing until they darted out of the strike zone at the last moment.
Most impressively, Scherzer kept getting better the longer he pitched. During one stretch, he retired 10 batters in a row, and within that stretch he struck out five of six batters.
Now the ace just needed his teammates to provide some run support.
It came off the bats of two of the lineup’s most accomplished hitters. Anthony Rendon struck first, just missing a grand slam in the bottom of the third, but settling for a game-tying sacrifice fly to the warning track in left. Two innings later, he lined an RBI single over the shortstop’s head to bring Trea Turner home with the go-ahead run.
A 2-1 lead in the fifth, however, did not feel especially comfortable. Certainly not for anyone who remembered that exact same lead morphing into an 8-2 deficit on 24 hours earlier. The Nationals needed more, and they got more from Ryan Zimmerman.
With 39-year-old starter Rich Hill lasting only 2 2/3 innings, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts knew he was going to have to lean on his bullpen for this game. Kenta Maeda remained untouchable, but the Nats started to get their hacks in against Julio Urías in the bottom of the fifth. So as Zimmerman came up to bat with two on and two out, Roberts signaled to his pen for Pedro Báez. The right-hander had enjoyed considerable success against Zimmerman (0-for-5, three strikeouts) over the years, and Davey Martinez had Asdrúbal Cabrera on his bench if he wanted to play the matchup. But he stuck with his guy, and he was rewarded for it.
With the crowd on its feet in anticipation of something big, Báez tried to get Zimmerman to chase a 97 mph up over the strike zone. Somehow, the 35-year-old got to it and lofted the ball high and deep to center field. The crowd initially cheered but then held its collective breath, waiting to see where the ball would come down. It took 6.1 seconds from impact to landing, an eternity, but when it landed safely on the sloped batter’s eye beyond the fence, all the emotions came pouring out.
Zimmerman let out a roar as he rounded first base, violently slapping Tim Bogar’s hand. The dugout went nuts. The fans kept cheering and wouldn’t stop until Zimmerman came back up the steps for a quick curtain call.
Now the Nationals had some cushion, a 5-1 lead, and their ace on the mound. Martinez’s ideal pitching plan for this game was simple: Get everything he could get out of Scherzer, then let Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson do the rest. But how much could he get out of Scherzer?
The key development here might well have been the top of the sixth, when Scherzer retired the heart of the L.A. lineup (Max Muncy, Turner and Cody Bellinger) on 12 pitches. That raised his total for the night to 82, and ensured he’d have plenty left in the tank for the top of the seventh.
But first, the Nationals would tack on another insurance run, thanks to another sac fly from Rendon. Before the game, Martinez was asked why his No. 3 hitter and MVP candidate was struggling. He wouldn’t be asked that after a game in which he quadrupled his postseason RBI total from one to four.
When Scherzer took the mound for the top of the seventh with a 6-1 lead, the rain that had come and gone over the last few innings turned heavy again, leaving fans scrambling to get ponchos over their heads. Whether it was the weather or fatigue, Scherzer did finally look human again. He allowed three straight Dodgers rookies (Matt Beaty, Gavin Lux, Will Smith) to reach base with one out, the latter two on walks.
With the bases loaded and the starter’s pitch count at 99, Doolittle began to warm up in the bullpen and Paul Menhart began to make his way to the mound for a chat. Scherzer didn’t want any of it. He kept his head down, said a few words back at his pitching coach and then backed off the mound muttering to himself.
Scherzer has always lived by a mantra that the last 10 pitches of a start define that start. So here was his opportunity to define this start. How did he define it? With guts.
He battled pinch-hitter Chris Taylor through an eighth-pitch at-bat, finally striking him out on a 3-2 slider, his 107th pitch of the game. But the bases were still loaded for Joc Pederson, who sent the very next pitch down the right field line.
The crowd gasped, worried Pederson had just cleared the bases with a two-out double. But the ball landed no more than two inches foul, emphatically and correctly called by crew chief Ted Barrett, so disaster was averted. And on his next pitch, Scherzer got Pederson to ground out to second, ending the inning with three runners stranded.
Scherzer stalked off the mound, soaked in the adulation of the crowd, doled out painfully hard high-fives in the dugout and recognized he had given everything he had in this 109-pitch performance.
The rest was fairly academic. Doolittle pitched the eighth, and though it required a strong wind blowing in to keep Muncy in the yard, he retired the side. The lefty came back out to begin the ninth, but after retiring Corey Seager gave way to Hudson, who recorded the last two outs and ensured the Nats would be taking a flight to Los Angeles after all.
Yes, the Nationals would be playing yet another Game 5, hoping beyond hope this Game 5 would be different than the three previous Game 5s. They would have Stephen Strasburg on the mound. They would have the confidence of a team that had now come from behind to win two elimination games in a week.
“I mean, this is why you play the game,” Zimmerman said that night. “This is what we live for.”