Dodgers cash in gamble by Austin Barnes
The Dodgers slumbered through half the game, awakening with a bolt of energy that revitalized the fans and players within the grand old ballpark.
The Dodgers were three outs from winning a three-game series in which two of the opposing starters were Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. They were three outs from their first victory in a game in which they did not score first. They were three outs from the .500 mark, with their next three games against the Miami Marlins, a team that intentionally self-destructed in the offseason.
Surely this could be a turning point, a pivot away from mediocrity. Surely Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers’ All-Star closer, would join in the revival with his first 1-2-3 inning of the season. Or not.
Jansen and the Dodgers remain a work in progress, but there was indeed progress in Sunday night’s 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals. The Dodgers won with five hits — four of them doubles — and a hit batter.
And with Jansen, whose dominance remains to be rediscovered. No sooner had “California Love” faded from the sound system than Jansen gave up consecutive singles to Matt Adams and Wilmer Difo. The tying and go-ahead runs were on base, with none out, and here we go again?
“Annoying, annoying,” Jansen said. “This game is testing our patience right now. It’s annoying.”
All’s well that ends well, and Jansen ended the game by retiring the next three batters, two by strikeout. Still, he is allowing twice as many baserunners as he did last year.
“I had to calm myself down out there,” he said. “I was really pissed off and angry. One out at a time, I’ll get out of it.”
The Dodgers scored the winning run thanks to this seldom-seen archetype: the speedy backup catcher.
Austin Barnes is not one of the headline names on the Dodgers, but he embodies the versatility and depth so coveted by the team’s management. He is primarily a catcher, but he can help at second base and third base. He can hit, if not for power, and he can run a little bit.
And so it came to pass that Barnes had entered the game as a substitute, at second base. The score was tied 3-3 in the seventh inning. The Dodgers might have used a left-handed hitter to bat for Barnes, but they had none on a bench thinned by a nine-man bullpen.
So Barnes stood at bat, as his body was tagged by an 80-mph curve from Trevor Gott. Barnes took first base. Chase Utley must have been proud.
“I try not to show emotion,” Barnes said, “kind of like what Chase would do.”
Chris Taylor laced a single into right field, and most anyone with the primary position of catcher would have stopped at second base, where he would have found himself in scoring position and darn pleased about it.
But there went Barnes, dodging the ball hit by Taylor, taking a narrow turn around second base and charging to third, challenging the arm of Bryce Harper.
“You’ve got to make something happen,” Barnes said. “It was worth a shot.”
He was safe, 90 feet from home plate, and from there he scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly by Corey Seager.
“Being athletic adds that other dynamic,” manager Dave Roberts said of Barnes. “That created that inning for us.”
Jeremy Hellickson, the Nationals’ starter, was unemployed two weeks before opening day. But, after facing the elite fastballs of Scherzer and Strasburg, the Dodgers flailed against the soft tosses and breaking balls offered by Hellickson.
The Nationals put up a run in the second inning, a run in the fourth and a run in the sixth. The Dodgers had put up nothing at that point, with Hellickson spinning a one-hitter and retiring 14 consecutive batters.
Then came the third time through the order, for a pitcher without even half a spring to build his arm strength. So then came the deluge, with one out in the sixth: Taylor doubled, Seager walked, Yasmani Grandal doubled home two runs. The Nationals tried a reliever, and Cody Bellinger doubled home the tying run.
Alex Wood, the Dodgers’ starter, worked six innings and gave up three runs, two earned. He nonetheless evaluated his performance as “pretty uninspiring” and reserved his greatest praise for Barnes.
“Austin is an incredible talent,” Wood said. “It’s an absolute luxury to have someone like him as our No. 2 [catcher].”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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