Sunday was not pleasant for the Dodgers. Walker Buehler, their up-and-coming All-Star ace, was chased after 5 1/3 innings on his 25th birthday. Joc Pederson, their experiment at first base, failed to make two plays that cost them three runs in a span of three batters. Stephen Strasburg limited them to one run on two hits across seven innings and plate umpire Jeremie Rehak’s strike zone was a source of agitation.
In the end, they lost 11-4 at Nationals Park, tying their largest margin of defeat this season. It was atypically ugly and highlighted possible flaws. But in the grand scheme of this 162-game march, it is a three-hour episode the Dodgers will shrug off because despite Sunday’s unsightliness they have won a series on the road against a possible playoff opponent and head to Denver with a 14 1/2-game lead in the National League West.
The Dodgers (69-38) caught a break in facing only one of the Nationals’ three top pitchers in the series. They capitalized on missing Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin the first two games, but Strasburg shut them down. The right-hander carried a perfect game until A.J. Pollock doubled with one out in the fifth inning. The Dodgers’ only run off Strasburg came later in the inning on Matt Beaty’s RBI double down the right-field line.
Strasburg concluded his day with nine strikeouts and no walks while supplying an RBI single. He has accumulated more RBIs (6) than runs allowed (4) in July. His 14 wins are tops in the National League.
“You got to give credit to Strasburg for pitching the way he did,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But it was still good to win a series.”
Buehler matched Strasburg until the fifth inning. The trouble began when Gerardo Parra hit a squibber against the shift toward third base. He reached base easily and Brian Dozier, a former Dodger, smashed a two-run home run to give the Nationals (56-49) a lead. Buehler ultimately lasted 5 1/3 innings. He allowed seven runs — four earned — on eight hits.
“Just didn’t execute enough and got myself in bad counts and made some pitches that caught too much of the plate,” Buehler said.
Pederson’s inexperience at first base didn’t help in the sixth when Trea Turner hit a groundball to him with the bases loaded. Pederson fired a low throw to Will Smith at home that bounced through Smith’s legs, allowing two runs to score. The sequence concluded Buehler’s day after 100 pitches.
Two batters later, Rendon lifted a pop-up to shallow right field off Yimi Garcia. Pederson, Max Muncy, and Cody Bellinger converged on the ball. It bounced off Pederson’s glove and dropped for an RBI single to give Washington a 7-1 lead. The plays were the latest pains in Pederson’s midseason transition to first base, one prompted by the Dodgers’ comfortable lead in the division — and the Dodgers’ recent defensive struggles as a club.
“Probably not,” Roberts said when asked if the Dodgers would play Pederson at first base if not for the ample cushion. “But … the thing is that he didn’t make a play but the team defense isn’t solely on one person. That’s collective.”
The displeasure with Rehak behind the plate began almost immediately, but it initially emanated from the Nationals’ side in the first inning. Adam Eaton, Washington’s second hitter, assumed he had earned a walk on a 3-1 pitch that appeared to be above the strike zone. Eaton dropped his bat and jogged to first base but Rehak called strike two. An exasperated Eaton, who had vocalized his disapproval of Dan Bellino’s strike zone Saturday, continued trotting to first base until he stopped three-fourths down the line.
Eaton struck out swinging at the next pitch. He offered Rehak his dissenting opinion before beginning his walk to the dugout. Rehak ejected him. The hook triggered Eaton and prompted Nationals manager Dave Martinez to defend his player. Martinez was promptly ejected. He had to be held back from confronting Rehak again and left to a standing ovation.
The Dodgers expressed their frustration with Rehak more than once. It reached a boiling point in the sixth. Strasburg struck out the side looking in the top of the inning and Justin Turner disagreed with the called third strike that ended it. His reaction coaxed Roberts out to speak with Rehak.
“I’m not using that as an excuse and I don’t think we are,” Roberts said. “Some of those pitches, I’m sure, were very close, but Stras was making pitches and we didn’t. That’s all there is to that.”
Buehler was next in line. He barked at Rehak in the bottom of the inning after throwing four straight balls to Parra to put two runners on base with one out. He walked Dozier to load the bases before Strasburg stroked an RBI single the other way. It fell apart from there.
The Nationals tacked on four more runs in the eighth off right-hander Jaime Schultz, before Corey Seager mashed a three-run home run with two out in the ninth inning. The last-second blast made a day when just about nothing went right a little more palatable.
“We’re a pretty good ball team and to win a series on the road is always encouraging,” Buehler said. “I would’ve liked to end it a little better and do a little better personally but we keep playing baseball games and keep trying to win.”