The evening unraveled in an instant, the chance for a sweep disappearing in the vapor trail of Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman's game-changing home run. A three-run shot against reliever Ross Stripling costing the Dodgers the lead in a 7-1 defeat in Sunday's series finale.
Stripling could not keep the Nationals quiet in the sixth inning. After a leadoff walk and a single, he hung a slider to Zimmerman and watched the baseball disappear from sight.
"His nitro zone is up above the belt," manager Dave Roberts said, lamenting a pitch thrown to that exact location.
Stripling (3-5) relieved Hyun-Jin Ryu, who struck out five batters in 4 2/3 scoreless innings before losing command of the strike zone. Ryu walked the final two batters he faced. Stripling defused that fire. He started his own an inning later.
Stripling finds himself among a handful of right-handed pitchers — a group that includes Josh Fields, Pedro Baez, Kenta Maeda and rookie Walker Buehler — vying for spots in the bullpen for the playoffs. Stripling has been charged runs in his last two outings.
"It creeps into your mind," Stripling said. "We've got a lot of talented righties who are all pretty similar and all trying to make the postseason roster."
The Dodgers did not have an answer for Stephen Strasburg (14-4), who dominated them for six innings. The Dodgers run stemmed from a fielder's mistake. The deficit expanded after Buehler gave up a run in the seventh inning and Josh Ravin surrendered two homers, including a solo shot by Zimmerman, in the eighth.
The Dodgers outscored the Nationals 10-2 during the first two games of the series. They also faced the bottom tier of the Washington starting staff. Strasburg is different.
In his first five starts since coming off the disabled list last month, Strasburg gave up only two runs and struck out 41 batters in 35 innings. The 2.64 earned-run average he carried into Sunday's game was the fourth-lowest among starting pitchers in the majors. He would force the Dodgers to adjust their usual plan of attack.
As a team, the Dodgers do not rely on speed. Yet, they spotted vulnerability in Strasburg's delivery. Justin Turner stole second base after a first-inning walk. An inning later, Yasiel Puig swiped second after a broken-bat single.
Puig was standing on third base when Logan Forsythe batted with two outs in the inning. Forsythe had hit .194 this month. Chase Utley appears to have displaced him as the starting second baseman against right-handed pitchers. But Roberts decided to start Forsythe on Sunday, citing Utley's .156 batting average in 32 at-bats against Strasburg.
Forsythe received credit for a hit in the second inning. He owed a debt to Washington outfielder Michael A. Taylor. Forsythe drove a 96-mph fastball into center field. Taylor backtracked to the edge of the warning track. He checked his distance from the wall before focusing on the baseball. It hit the heel of his glove and fell to the ground, allowing Puig to score.
Ryu protected the lead, but could not finish the fifth inning. He faded when facing Strasburg with two outs. Strasburg fouled off three pitches in a row before working a nine-pitch walk. After Ryu walked shortstop Trea Turner, Roberts sent Stripling to face outfielder Jayson Werth.
"I fell behind in counts, and they made me work," Ryu said. "All in all, it definitely was frustrating."
Stripling pumped a curveball for a first-pitch strike. Werth swung through a 93-mph fastball. When Stripling tried another fastball, Werth was ready. He ripped a liner into left field.
As the ball landed, third base umpire Gary Cederstrom held his hands aloft. Foul ball. Werth howled as he ran down the line. The Nationals challenged the call. Cederstrom, the crew chief, communicated with MLB's offices in New York for 1 minute 59 seconds.
In one angle, the baseball appeared to kick up a whiff of chalk. In another, it appeared to land a shade outside the line. The evidence was inconclusive. Cederstrom's call was upheld. Manager Dusty Baker spat out his toothpick and stomped on it. Werth flew out on Stripling's next pitch.
"Obviously," Stripling said, "happy to escape that one."
Luck did not stay in Stripling's favor. Roberts sent him to face the heart of Washington's lineup. Stripling walked third baseman Anthony Rendon, missing away with fastballs and sliders. Second baseman Daniel Murphy hit a single up the middle.
With Zimmerman at the plate, Stripling and catcher Yasmani Grandal leaned on sliders. Stripling threw two outside the zone. He opted for a third, hoping to induce soft contact. A tee would have worked just as well.
Stripling managed to finish the inning. He understands the logjam facing the roster as October approaches.
"When you've got 13 or 14 games left and you have a tough outing," Stripling said, "it's certainly something you'll look at as being a time where if you make it, or you don't, it affected their decision."