Nationals flinch, Dodgers advance to NLCS
Once again, something (or things plural) utterly improbable and unpredictable decided a high-stakes baseball showdown in NLDS Game 5 on Thursday evening, as the L.A. Dodgers came back from a 1-0 deficit in the top of the seventh inning and held on to defeat the Washington Nationals, 4-3. (Sound familiar?) Over and over again, the Nationals just couldn't get hits when they needed it, while the Dodgers pieced together an amazing rally in the seventh inning, accounting for all their runs. Both managers constantly adjusted their lineups and pitching duties in a most unorthodox way. You would have to see it to believe it.
During the first half of the game, there was plenty of room for optimism, as the Nats took an early 1-0 lead on an RBI single by Danny Espinosa in the second inning. For the second game in a row, Danny redeemed himself, after getting zero hits in the first three games of the series. But after that, the Nationals stranded Ryan Zimmerman on third base (where he had reached with just one out), the first of several run-scoring opportunities in which the Nats choked. On the mound, Max Scherzer was in the groove and had a no-hitter through four innings, so the Nats' one-run lead seemed safe enough. But in the fifth inning he gave up three hits all of a sudden, loading the bases with just one out. Fortunately, he got out of the jam intact. In the bottom of the fifth, Bryce Harper walked on a full count, but was then picked off first base by Dodgers' pitcher Julio Urias, on what should have been called a balk. (Personally, I think it would be better to get rid of the balk rules entirely, because they are enforced too unevenly. It's just too subjective.)
Scherzer got through the top of the sixth giving up just an inconsequential hit, and in the bottom of the inning, Jayson Werth (who was at the plate when Harper was picked off the inning before) drew a leadoff walk. Two batters later, Ryan Zimmerman smashed a double to the left field corner, which was exactly the kind of clutch hit from Ryan that Nats fans had been waiting for! But left-fielder Andrew Toles quickly threw the ball to the cutoff man, and for some inexplicable reason, third base coach Bob Henley waved Werth home. That was one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in a baseball game. Werth was out by a mile (technically, only about 45 feet), and what could have been a game-deciding rally came to an abrupt and disheartening end. See MLB.com. In the post-game interview, Werth said he was just doing the same aggressive base-running the Nats have been doing all year, but the responsibility lay with Henley, and I hope he never wears a Nationals uniform again.
The shift in momentum became dramatically apparent in the top of the seventh inning, when Joc Pederson hit a leadoff homer to tie the game. That exposed Max Scherzer's fatal flaw that we have seen more than once this year: his proneness to giving up home runs. Dusty Baker immediately replaced Max with Marc Rzepczynski, who walked Yasmani Grandal, and was then replaced by Blake Treinen, who gave up a single and then got a strikeout, after which Sammy Solis took the mound. Carlos Ruiz came in to pinch hit for Chase Utley, and hit an RBI single to give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. The dangerous rookie Corey Seager flew out, after which Shawn Kelley came in to pitch to Justin Turner, who smashed a long fly ball that bounced off the center field fence for a two-run triple. It's too much to expect Trea Turner to have caught the ball, but an experienced center fielder would have at least handled it better. Would that have affected the score? No. [ Then Oliver Perez threw a 4-pitch walk to Joc Pederson, one of the Dodgers known to hit poorly off left-handers. Justin Turner ... ]
The seventh inning of the 2016 NLDS Game 5 will be remembered in much the same traumatic way that the ninth inning of the 2012 NLDS Game 5 is remembered. In both cases, the opposing team grabbed the lead with four runs, but in this case at least there was time for the Nationals to regroup mentally. I confess to losing heart in the wake of the Dodgers' rally last night, expressing "doom" in Facebook posts. But that turned out to be premature, as the Nationals bounced back in the bottom of the inning, as Danny Espinosa took a lead-off walk and pinch-hitter Chris Heisey hit a home run to close the gap to just one run. Then Clint Robinson singled, and the Dodgers' manager brought in their closing pitcher Kenley Jansen, a truly stunning development. Trea Turner flew out, and then Joe Ross (a pitcher!) came in to pinch run for Robinson. That turned out to be a smart move, as Ross made it to third base on a single by Bryce Harper. With runners on first and third with just one out, Nats fans' hopes were soaring, but Jayson Werth struck out (on a full count), Daniel Murphy was walked to load the bases, and then Anthony Rendon struck out to end the inning. Ouch.
In the bottom of the eighth, Stephen Drew drew (!) a leadoff walk, but Danny Espinosa popped out in a botched sacrifice bunt attempt. The next two batters were hapless second-stringers: Pedro Severino flew out, and Michael Taylor struck out to end the inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth drew consecutive walks with one out, and in another stunning bullpen move, none other than Clayton Kershaw came in to relieve Kenley Jansen. Daniel Murphy was coming up to bat, and the Dodgers could take no chances. It was a showdown between superstar pitcher and superstar slugger, a confrontation that will be part of baseball lore for years and years to come. All the chips were on the table, and the crowd cheered lustily. And then the mighty Murphy popped out, as hearts sank all across Natsland. There was still one out to go, and the burden of saving the game -- and the year -- fell upon the shoulders of young pinch-hitter Wilmer Difo, who swung wildly at three of the four pitches he saw to end the game.
Complete reports of NLDS Game 5 can be found at MLB.com.
I don't want to be too hard on Dusty Baker, who has been magnificent as a manager this season, a key ingredient in the Nationals' regular-season success. But I think it's clear in retrospect that he should have kept Max Scherzer on the mound after Max gave up that solo home run in the seventh inning. Max later told reporters he told Dusty that he was ready to keep going, and even though his pitch count had reached 99, he probably could have finished that inning intact. That fateful decision was the main theme of the Washington Post article summarizing the game by Adam Kilgore. After Max was replaced, Dusty changed pitchers after every batter, which seemed rather desperate. Other than Chris Heisey, who homered, the double-switches made necessary by all the pitching changes ended up costing the Nats dearly. I was appalled when Dusty replaced first baseman Zimmerman in the seventh inning and third baseman Anthony Rendon in the eighth inning. I just couldn't believe it when in the final two innings, the Nationals' fate was decided by a bunch of untested rookies. Michael Taylor??? Wilmer Difo??? It was as if it was a preseason game, or an inconsequential late-season game when the veterans need a rest.
In sum, the Game 5 loss by the Nationals was a combination of adverse circumstances and failure to execute in clutch situations. Without a doubt, the loss of pitcher Stephen Strasburg and catcher Wilson Ramos to injuries in the final weeks of the season cost the Nationals very dearly. Overall, player for player, the Nationals are probably a better team than the Dodgers, but several of their players lacked the mental discipline and grit needed to prevail when they absolutely had to. For the series as a whole, the Nationals outscored the Dodgers 24-19. All three Dodgers' wins were by exactly one run.
Attendance at NLDS Game 5 was 43,936, the eighth consecutive postseason game sellout at Nationals Park. In contrast, there were at least six thousand empty seats at Dodger Stadium (nominal capacity 56,000) in Game 4.
Having desperately pulled out all the stops in two elimination games in a row, the Dodgers are now exhausted and frankly ill-equipped to take on the Chicago Cubs. The NLCS begins in Wrigley Field on Saturday night, and I'll be rooting for my dear departed dad's team -- the Cubs!
And so, the Nationals are done for the year, going home once again with the shadow of deep disappointment hanging over their heads. In some ways, it's not as bad as either the 2012 or 2014 NLDS defeats, as they played better for the most part. Indeed, they came very close to clinching the series in both Game 4 and Game 5, and that's what hurts the most. The Nationals' cumulative win-loss record in postseason home games is now an abysmal 2-8, a sharp contrast to their fine regular-season home game record (50-31 this year). Nevertheless, they have nothing to be ashamed of, and much to be proud of. Hopefully this "character-building" ordeal will strengthen them as they prepare to embark on yet another quest for the world championship in 2017.
So how I am going to cope with this grief? (Lord knows I have had enough of it this year.) Well, I'm learning to play the Eagles' song "Heartache Tonight" on the guitar, and plan to play it in public next week -- possibly with a new verse referring to what happened last night. I played Terry Cashman's nostalgic tune "Talkin' Baseball" a couple weeks ago, and will have more to say on that soon...