In meetings on one of the four off days before this National League division series began, the Dodgers’ pitchers discussed how they’d face Washington’s hitters. They decided they’d pound these Nationals with low-and-outside fastballs and attempt to overwhelm another with fastballs in the inner third of the strike zone.
“I don’t know about you guys,” Joe Blanton said at that moment, according to teammate Luis Avilan, “But I won’t throw fastballs at all. I just throw sliders.”
In the seventh inning of Tuesday’s defeat-or-retreat Game 4 at Dodger Stadium, Blanton did as he said. He entered with two outs and the go-ahead run on third base, and required only three pitches to strike out Anthony Rendon. None were fastballs. The third was a slider placed precisely where he wanted, in a spot where Rendon could do little with it even if he hit it.
Blanton remained for another inning and threw 16 pitches, 14 of them sliders, to strike out two more. He was awarded the win when the Dodgers rallied in the bottom of the eighth to force a Game 5 Thursday at Nationals Park.
“In the bullpen, everything that you do good is raised up,” Blanton said. “When you’re out there, you throw your best pitch.”
Blanton began to warm up only when Avilan entered Tuesday’s game. Avilan threw two pitches, giving up a two-run single to Daniel Murphy before being pulled. So, Blanton said, he had to repurpose the extra adrenaline pumping in his veins because of the situation into readiness for his right arm.
His teammates noted the calm he exhibited on the mound and his satisfaction when he walked off it.
“He went through a lot in his career, and you can see how strong he is,” closer Kenley Jansen said.
Blanton, 35, had thrown 40 postseason innings before this series. A starter for the first decade of his professional career, he had started and homered in a World Series his team won. His career was already an unequivocal success.
But he had essentially retired two years ago. He was the worst starting pitcher in baseball throughout 2013, and the Angels released him the following spring despite owing him $8.5 million; Oakland picked him up then cut him, per his request, two weeks later.
Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner is hit by a pitch from Nationals pitcher Joe Ross in the first inning of Game 4 of the NLDS on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw throws a pitch against the Nationals in the fourth inning of Game 4.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Nationals center fielder Trea Turner misses the ball as left fielder Jayson Werth fields a single by Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner in the third inning of Game 4.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw slides into second base with a third-inning double as Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy takes the throw in Game 4 of the NLDS.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw connects for a double to lead off the third inning against Nationals pitcher Joe Ross in Game 4.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez watches his two-run home run against the Nationals in the first inning of Game 4.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez high-fives teammates after hitting a two-run homer off Nationals pitcher Joe Ross in the first inning of Game 4.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson is hit by a pitch from Nationals starter Joe Ross, scoring Justin Turner from third base in the third inning of Game 4.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson hustles around first base on his way to an run-scoring double in the fifth inning of Game 4.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw leaves the mound after getting replaced in the seventh inning with two outs and the bases loaded in Game 4.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pinch-hitter Yasiel Puig tries to check his swing during an at-bat in the seventh inning of Game 4.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pinch-hitter Yasiel Puig reacts after he’s called out on strikes by umpire Tom Hallion during the seventh inning of Game 4. Puig would stay in the game to play right field.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley connects for a single to drive in teammate Josh Reddick with the eventual winning run in the eighth inning of Game 4.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers reliever Joe Blanton turns toward the Nationals bench after getting the last out in the eighth inning of Game 4.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley flips the ball pitcher Kenley Jansen (not pictured) after cutting in front of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to make the final out against the Nationals in Game 4.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Second baseman Chase Utley and Dodgers fans react after the last out was recorded against the Nationals in Game 4.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
He spent the season’s duration tending to his Northern California vineyards, then decided to give this sport one last chance, citing the ever-decreasing size of his window to try. He worked himself into remarkable physical condition, his body better, stronger and quicker than it had ever been. And he pitched 76 solid innings for two teams last season.
Then the Dodgers signed him, for $4 million, to be a middle reliever. He made an extra million in incentives while working his way into their No. 2 relief role.
“I’m just happy for him that he’s kind of reinvented himself a little bit after the last few years,” said Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley, his Philadelphia teammate for four years. “He’s the ultimate competitor.”
Improbably, Blanton has been the Dodgers’ best reliever this series, his slider unrelenting in both its difficulty to hit and his dependence on it. He said he thrived because of his past, because of the good in it and because of the bad, because he knew how to feel.
“We’ve been there and we’ve won, we’ve been there and we’ve lost,” Blanton said. “We’ve kind of done it all. We’ve learned, mostly, just to try to treat it like another game the best you can. Obviously it’s a completely different scenario, but the more you can keep the pressure low on yourself, you’re better off.
“It was a long road there for a couple years. But I’m at where I’m at, and I’m kind of enjoying the ride right now.”