As the final countdown to first pitch proceeded Oct. 9, two thoughts came to mind:
* This felt awfully familiar for the Nationals, yet another winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
* This felt strikingly different from those previous Game 5 fiascos, because this time the Nats were on the road and underdogs to their opponents.
In the end, of course, the 2019 NLDS was completely different from the other ones because the Nationals actually emerged victorious for the first time. But for a long time on that Wednesday evening at Dodger Stadium, it sure felt like a familiar result was inevitable, didn’t it?
In re-watching the entire broadcast of the game Monday evening, you had to admit the Dodgers were in complete control for seven innings and looked poised to finish it off after that. But you also had to admit this bore an eerie resemblance to the previous week’s NL wild card game, and we all know how that one finished.
Sure enough, just as they did in the wild card game, the Nats staked the opposition to a quick 3-0 lead, then entered the eighth inning down 3-1 before pulling off a dramatic rally. The manner in which they dug themselves into that 3-0 deficit, in fact, was identical.
In the wild card game, Max Scherzer surrendered a two-run homer to the second batter of the game (Yasmani Grandal), then a leadoff homer in the second inning (Eric Thames). In Game 5 of the NLDS, Stephen Strasburg surrendered a two-run homer to the second batter he faced (Max Muncy), then a leadoff homer in the second inning (Enrique Hernández).
Dodger Stadium was thumping, and an NLCS showdown with the Cardinals (who shockingly scored 10 runs in the top of the first against the Braves earlier in the afternoon) loomed in the near future.
All the more concerning was that the Nationals couldn’t get anything going against Walker Buehler, the guy who shut them out in Game 1 and was doing the same in Game 5. There were a few long and loud outs to the warning track, but that was it for four innings.
Then came the top of the fifth, and finally a real shot at a run-scoring rally. Kurt Suzuki drew a leadoff walk, then Michael A. Taylor (starting in place of the injured Victor Robles for the third straight game) beautifully went with an outside pitch and slapped the ball into right-center field for a shift-beating single.
Now, the first decision of the night for Davey Martinez. Down 3-0 but with two on and nobody out in the fifth, would he send up a pinch-hitter for Strasburg? No, he would not. He would instruct his pitcher to get a bunt down and move both runners into scoring position. It sounded easy enough, but it wasn’t for Strasburg, who ran the count full and then fouled off a bunt attempt for a demoralizing strikeout.
Buehler seemed to be re-energized by that sequence, because he followed it up by striking out Trea Turner on a pitch in the dirt, then got Adam Eaton to fly out to right to end the inning with two runners left on base and zero runs having crossed the plate.
To his credit, Strasburg didn’t give up after surrendering those early homers. He really buckled down and wound up dominating the Dodgers lineup, retiring eight batters in row through the fifth.
In turning around his once-wayward start, Strasburg kept the game within reach for his teammates. And they got themselves even closer to striking range with a top-of-the-sixth rally behind their top two hitters. Anthony Rendon led off the inning with a double down the left field line, then scored moments later when Juan Soto ripped an RBI single to right to trim the deficit to 3-1.
The Nats suddenly had momentum, but then Howie Kendrick handed it right back to the Dodgers. The veteran infielder, suffering through a miserable series at the plate, on the bases and in the field, was charged with his third error when he let Cody Bellinger’s third-inning grounder go right through his legs. Then when he came up to bat following Soto’s RBI single with a chance to keep the pressure on, he grounded into a 4-6-3 double play that left the bases empty and left many Nationals fans cursing Martinez’s decision to start him in the first place. (Note: They wouldn’t be cursing that decision a couple hours later.)
The bottom of the sixth might well have been Strasburg’s most important inning of the evening. Needing to keep the score at 3-1, he pitched the entire frame with action in the visitors’ bullpen (first Tanner Rainey, later joined by Patrick Corbin). Then with a runner on second and nobody out, he proceeded to strike out Matt Beaty, Corey Seager and Hernández in succession, each on off-speed pitches.
That left Strasburg’s pitch count at 105 and ended his night after six. His counterpart, though, took the mound for the top of the seventh with his pitch count at 97. Buehler immediately got into trouble, drilling Suzuki with a high-and-tight fastball. Suzuki collapsed to the ground, seemingly having taken a direct hit to the face. Upon further review, it became clear the ball ricocheted off his left wrist before then ringing his bell.
Suzuki perhaps avoided true disaster, but he looked woozy as he walked off the field, though he did participate in the postgame celebration and insist he was fine. The more pressing matter in that moment: The Nationals managed to knock Buehler out of the game after Turner drew a two-out walk, driving the starter’s pitch count up to 117.
But in from the pen came Clayton Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award winner, for his seventh career postseason relief appearance. He would strike out Eaton on three pitches to end the inning and leave the old ballpark rocking.
The Nationals would exact their revenge on Kershaw in the eighth, but before they could do that they needed their bullpen to post a zero in the seventh. They got that zero from the unlikely Rainey/Corbin combo. The rookie flamethrower retired both Will Smith and Chris Taylor. Then the lefty starter replaced him and struck out Joc Pederson on a good slider down and away.
And so it remained a 3-1 game heading to the eighth, with Kershaw going back to the mound to face the heart of the Nationals lineup. He would throw only three more pitches and would depart with the game tied.
The back-to-back homers came in rapid succession. Rendon hammered a 1-0 slider below his knees deep to left and over the fence to cut the deficit to 3-2. Soto then destroyed Kershaw’s very next offering (a slider on the inside corner) some 449 feet into the bleachers in right-center to tie the game.
The Nats dugout went wild. The crowd was shocked at first, then began booing Kershaw as he was removed mid-inning having just blown the game for his team.
Kenta Maeda replaced him, and that would prove to be an important development. The right-hander was far and away the Dodgers’ most effective reliever the entire series (he retired 14 of the 15 batters he faced, seven via strikeout) and he continued the trend here, striking out Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman and Yan Gomes (who had replaced the injured Suzuki) to end the inning with the game tied 3-3.
Here, though, is where Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made the first of several head-scratching decisions that ultimately backfired. He didn’t double-switch when Maeda entered the game, which meant the reliever was due up fourth in the bottom of the eighth. And sure enough, Maeda’s spot came up with one on and two out. Roberts had to send up David Freese to pinch-hit for him, and the pesky batter struck out on another tough slider from Corbin, who wound up tossing 1 1/3 scoreless innings of relief, striking out three.
So, Roberts only got one inning out of his best reliever. But no worries, because with the game tied at home, he could summon his closer to pitch the top of the ninth, right? Wrong. Instead of making the conventional move to Kenley Jansen, Roberts instead handed the fate of his season to Joe Kelly, who had been roughed up in Game 3 in D.C. three nights earlier. Kelly would retire the side with ease, so that decision looked fine for the moment as the Dodgers attempted to walk it off in the bottom of the ninth.
Daniel Hudson got the assignment for the Nationals, tasked with keeping L.A. off the scoreboard again to force extra innings. He did it, but not without a couple of hair-raising moments, most notably Smith’s long drive to right field with one on and one out. Smith, the rookie catcher, flipped his bat upon making contact. Bellinger and others in the Dodgers dugout hopped over the rail and were prepared to start a wild celebration at the plate. But then Eaton settled under the ball short of the fence, made the catch and the crowd groaned in disbelief as Smith was forced to jog back to the dugout having only made the second out of the inning.
After one more loud out (Chris Taylor’s lineout to center), Hudson and the Nats returned to their dugout, having now sent this do-or-die game into ultimate stress-inducing territory: extra innings.
The Nationals had the heart of their lineup coming up, and the Dodgers had both Jansen and lefty Adam Kolarek warming in their ‘pen. But Roberts stuck with Kelly, who admittedly dominated the ninth. He would not come close to dominating the 10th.
Eaton got things started by drawing a full-count walk. As Rendon came up to bat, the camera showed Scherzer in the Nats dugout. (Remember that, because that fact is going to be referenced again shortly.) Rendon fell behind in the count 0-2 but battled back to a 2-2 count and then ripped a double off the left field wall, the ball sticking in the padding. It was, believe it or not, his third extra-base hit in the last five innings.
So now Roberts had another decision to make with runners on second and third and nobody out: Bring in Kolarek to face Soto and hope the lefty retired him for the fourth time in the series, or intentionally walk Soto and take his chances with Kendrick and the bases loaded. He chose to take his chances with Kendrick. And boy did he regret that.
Not that the veteran had done much of anything positive in the series up to that point. He was 0-for-4 with a strikeout in this game. For the postseason, he was batting .227 with one RBI. But Kendrick had delivered time and again for the Nationals during the regular season, and Martinez never once thought about sending up anyone else to bat for him.
You know what happened next. Kelly tried to sneak an 0-1 fastball down and in. Kendrick got to it with lightning-quick hands and mashed it to straightaway center field. Based on his facial expression as he took his first couple steps toward first base, he knew all along he got it. The ball clearing the fence was only confirmation of that.
So now as Kendrick was rounding the bases and Ernie Johnson was screaming on the air about his extra-inning grand slam, Dodger Stadium was dead silent except for two pockets of folks wearing red: the Nationals dugout, which was going nuts, and the second-deck section behind the plate where the players’ families and friends were sitting. It was 7-3 Nats, and they were only three outs away from finally advancing to the NLCS.
Except the top of the 10th still wasn’t over. And Roberts still hadn’t made a pitching change. Kelly inexplicably was still on the mound, facing two more batters before he finally got the hook following Gomes’ one-out single to right. The crowd really let Roberts have it as he signaled to his bullpen way too late, then watched in disbelief as Jansen (the club’s longtime closer) came in to pitch garbage time. It was only his second appearance of the entire series.
The time elapsed between Soto’s go-ahead hit in the wild card game and Hudson recording the final out was eight minutes and felt like eight seconds. The time elapsed between Kendrick’s grand slam in Game 5 and Sean Doolittle recording the final out was 20 minutes and felt like 20 hours.
But Doolittle got the job done with ease, the final out of course coming on a diving catch by Taylor in shallow center field. And then the celebration was on.
Taylor held up the ball and looked around with puzzlement, as though he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do next.
Doolittle jumped up and down on the mound, amazed by his center fielder’s athletic play to end the game.
Martinez rejoiced with his coaching staff in the dugout.
And from way out in the right field bullpen, a lone figure led the charge to the center of the diamond: Scherzer.
Remember when I noted a little while ago that Scherzer could be seen in the dugout during the top of the 10th? At some point after Kendrick hit his grand slam, the ace raced around through the underbelly of Dodger Stadium and joined the relievers in the bullpen, just in case something weird happened and his manager signaled for him.
To me, there’s no funnier image from that night in L.A. than Scherzer watching Taylor make the game-ending catch, tossing his glove to the ground and sprinting out of the bullpen to join the celebration. About seven or eight steps in, he turns to look back over his shoulder and realizes nobody else is within 30 feet of him. He doesn’t care. He continues to charge toward the infield to be part of a celebration too many years in the making.
The Nationals had finally done it. They had won Game 5 of an NLDS. They had gotten over the hump. And they did it in a manner only this team could’ve done it. They came from behind to stave off elimination in Game 4. They came from behind to win Game 5 with three blasts from their three best hitters, all in the eighth inning or later. And now they were headed to St. Louis and the NLCS for the first time in club history.
“You couldn’t make this up,” a smiling Kendrick said to Alex Chappell in his on-field interview moments after the game ended.
Nor could you make up what was still to come before the month ended.