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Dodgers

Dodgers one loss away from elimination after 8-3 defeat in Game 3

Josh Reddick

Dodgers right fielder Josh Reddick leaps but can’t make the catch on a two-run double by Nationals Ryan Zimmerman in the ninth inning.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

They changed the manager. They changed the culture. They changed the composition of the starting rotation, the bullpen philosophy and the mind-set of the lineup. 

And yet here they are, toes hanging over the precipice of another early winter. The Dodgers found themselves one defeat away from a first-round playoff exit for the third year in a row after an 8-3 loss to Washington in Game 3 of the National League division series Monday at Dodger Stadium.

“We’re not afraid of this,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s been a long season, a lot of highs and lows. But I know there’s no quit in our guys.”

Fear is not the issue. Execution is.

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Through three games in this postseason, the rotation remains unreliable. The lineup consists of Justin Turner, Corey Seager and an assortment of men merely carrying bats to the plate. After a stunning, two-run pinch-hit homer by Carlos Ruiz pulled the team within a run Monday, the offense could not advance a runner to second base.

October thrives on fickleness. The Dodgers overcame a cavalcade of injuries throughout the summer and erased an eight-game deficit to overtake San Francisco for a fourth consecutive National League West crown. Perhaps the team can use that knowledge as motivation as they attempt to erase a 2-1 deficit in this best-of-five series. Or perhaps the rest of the club could manage to replicate their regular-season success on this stage.

The Dodgers elected to wait until Tuesday morning to announce the starter for Game 4. The choice appears to be either Clayton Kershaw on three days of rest or 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias. As the club debated the decision, they appeared to be kicking around three scenarios for the potential Game 5: Kershaw, Urias or perhaps even Rich Hill on short rest with Urias backing him up.

“You know I can’t say anything until Doc says anything,” Kershaw said as he walked out of the clubhouse.

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Roberts may have no other choice besides Kershaw. He exhausted his bullpen on Monday as the first postseason start of Kenta Maeda’s career veered close to a catastrophe. Maeda lasted only three innings and surrendered four runs. He followed a discouraging trend for the team’s starting rotation. Kershaw went five innings in Game 1. Hill couldn’t finish the fifth in Game 2. Maeda under-performed them both.

To salt the wound, closer Kenley Jansen combusted in the ninth. Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth unleashed a titanic solo homer. Three more runs scored after Josh Reddick dropped a fly ball at the wall in right field. The deluge emptied Dodger Stadium.

“You can’t worry about what’s happened in the last two days,” Jansen said. “We’ve got to flip the script.”

The team landed in Los Angeles around 11 p.m. on Sunday. The players trickled into the ballpark less than 12 hours later. The quick turnaround, wrought by Saturday’s rainout on a night without rain and a broadcast scheduled tilted toward showing the Chicago Cubs in primetime, meant both teams suffered.

On the mound for Washington stood the sort of nemesis who has befuddled the Dodgers all season. His ability mattered little. Gio Gonzalez throws with his left hand, which makes him the type of pitcher capable of defusing this lineup.

Gonzalez will never be confused with an ace. He posted a 4.57 earned-run average for the season, and a 5.17 ERA in the final two months. Opponents batted .343 against him in September. He is erratic and prone to abbreviated outings. The Dodgers merely needed to punish him for his flaws.

The offense took a small bite in the first. Turner walked and Seager walloped a double on the first pitch for his third-consecutive first-inning RBI in this series.

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Gonzalez leaned against the proverbial ropes. He threw three balls in a row to Yasiel Puig. Gonzalez settled himself to fire a strike. Puig swung through a fastball for a second strike. A questionable call on a fastball inside from umpire Ron Kulpa benefited Gonzalez for the strikeout. Next Gonzalez induced a weak groundout from Adrian Gonzalez to squash the threat.

Maeda could not hold the lead for long. In the third, he allowed a leadoff single to speedy rookie Trea Turner. Werth stroked a run-scoring double. Fellow outfielder Bryce Harper cracked a changeup into right for a go-ahead RBI single.

The inning only got worse when third baseman Anthony Rendon came up. Maeda tried to spot strikes on the outside corner, disinclined to challenge Rendon inside. He understood the danger. But he could not command his fastball. A 91-mph heater straightened over the heart of the plate. Rendon parked it deep in the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer.

“I’m really upset that I pitched like this,” Maeda said. “I feel bad for my team that I gave up four runs.”

With the Dodgers down three, the ballpark rocked itself to sleep. The crowd stayed that way until the bottom of the fifth, when Ruiz stepped to the plate after a single by Joc Pederson. The Dodgers acquired Ruiz in August to improve the offense against left-handed pitching, but elected to start Yasmani Grandal on Monday because of his history with Maeda.

Ruiz is not known for his power. Gonzalez might disagree. He fell behind, 3-1, and pumped a fastball over the middle. Ruiz crushed it over the fence in left. “I was waiting for a fastball, and I put on a good swing,” he said.

The homer removed Gonzalez from the game. Under most circumstances, exposing a team’s middle relievers to extended duty bodes well for the opposing offense. But the Dodgers could not solve left-hander Sammy Solis, who threw two scoreless innings in Game 1. Solis collected five outs to mollify the Dodgers, with the team “still gathering information” on him, Roberts said.

“Their bullpen is tough,” Seager said. “They’ve been tough on us all series. We haven’t gotten to them yet.”

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The hours are drawing thin. Unable to feast on the middle relievers, the Dodgers experienced an eight-out famine against set-up man Shawn Kelley and closer Mark Melancon. And by the time Melancon arrived, Jansen had already immolated.

The tension disappeared. Plenty of fans did, too. This season, marked for so many months by resilience, may last only one more day.

andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

ALSO

Plaschke: It has to be Clayton Kershaw in Game 4, but it’s also a shame that it must be that way

Giants stay alive, beating Cubs in 13 innings for 10th straight elimination win

A look at Tuesday’s Game 4 matchup between the Dodgers and the Nationals


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