The door cracked open for the Dodgers in the seventh inning of their 4-2 loss Friday when Sean Doolittle, not Stephen Strasburg, appeared on the mound at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers, gasping for six innings opposite Strasburg, had reached their destination. They had nine outs to prey on the Washington Nationals’ dreadful bullpen and steal Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
In response, the Nationals, clawing to avoid facing elimination, exhausted their three best options in unprecedented fashion to work around their biggest issue. Doolittle, the closer to begin the season, was summoned two innings early. Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, was deployed for the eighth inning. The ninth belonged to the rejuvenated Daniel Hudson.
Doolittle, a left-hander, was summoned with left-handed hitters Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy due up. Doolittle outlasted Bellinger, striking him out on eight pitches. His ninth pitch was a 95-mph fastball down the middle that Muncy demolished. The ball traveled 413 feet into the right field pavilion. Muncy flipped his bat to the infield grass a few feet in front of him. The Dodgers had eight outs to produce one more run. Doolittle concluded the seventh inning without stumbling again to dwindle the expiration number to six.
The next three outs came in succession in Scherzer’s cameo appearance.
The right-hander, pitching after logging five innings in Tuesday’s wild-card game, was given the eighth inning. He struck out Gavin Lux, Chris Taylor and Joc Pederson on 14 pitches.
And yet, the Dodgers had managed to push the door ajar in the ninth inning when Corey Seager stepped into the batter’s box. The bases were loaded with two outs. Hudson, a Dodger last season, stood 60 feet, 6 inches away. The Dodgers, accustomed to home thrills in 2019, were trying to rally for a 13th walk-off win. A clash ensued.
Seager, usually a first-pitch hawk, took the first offering for a strike after watching Will Smith take first base on four pitches. He fouled off the next three pitches, took the next two for balls, and fouled off the seventh pitch. All seven pitches were fastballs. The eighth was a slider that darted in on Seager’s hands. Seager swung through it for the final of the Dodgers’ 17 strikeouts to conclude the game and tie the series at one. Game 3 is Sunday at Nationals Park.
“You battle, you grind it out, and he ended up winning the battle,” Seager said.
A comeback was necessary after Strasburg outpitched Clayton Kershaw.
The Nationals’ right-hander smoothly blended his four-pitch arsenal, relying more heavily on his curveball than usual, and goaded the Dodgers into hacking at pitches out of the strike zone for six innings. He held the Dodgers to one run and three hits while striking out 10 with no walks.
Kershaw’s early-game struggles from the regular season — he compiled a 5.79 ERA in the first inning — seeped into Friday. The Nationals ambushed him for a run in the first inning and two more in the second. He plunked two of the first eight batters he faced after hitting two of 706 batters during the regular season. He needed 44 pitches to secure six outs.
And as he did in most of his regular-season starts, Kershaw discovered a groove after the turbulence. The left-hander retired 13 of the final 15 batters he faced after Anthony Rendon’s two-out double in the second inning. He managed to complete six innings on 99 pitches. He struck out four and walked one.
Trea Turner smacked the game’s first pitch, a 91-mph fastball in off the plate, past a diving Justin Turner down the left-field line for a double. The Dodgers caught a break when Adam Eaton gave away his at-bat and popped up a bunt. It was the only out Kershaw would secure before loading the bases with a walk and hit by pitch, bringing up Howie Kendrick. The former Dodger laced a one-out single through the hole on the left side for the game’s first run.
The Nationals left the bases loaded, but added two more runs in the second inning. Kershaw ignited the trouble by plunking Victor Robles to lead off the inning. Adam Eaton knocked Robles home with a two-out single. Rendon cracked the next pitch for an RBI double off the wall in left-center to give Washington a 3-0 lead.
“After that, I started getting leadoff hitters out better,” Kershaw said, “but it was a little bit too late obviously.”
The Dodgers’ offensive game plan was elementary in theory: Force Strasburg to throw excess pitches and test his limits on two days’ rest after logging three innings in Tuesday’s wild-card game. It’s how the Dodgers approach every game, but knocking Strasburg out as soon as possible was paramount. The best way to beat the Nationals, as they showed in Game 1 Thursday, is to expose the team’s glaring weakness: middle relief.
Strasburg rendered the strategy difficult.
He was perfect into the fifth inning until Smith spoiled the effort with a two-out single to left-center. He was stranded, but the progress preceded a breakthrough in the sixth inning.
Matt Beaty, pinch-hitting for Kershaw, cracked a one-out single. Joc Pederson, after flailing at a changeup in the dirt, barreled a fastball to the wall in center field for a double. The quick sequence gave the Dodgers their first runners in scoring position. Justin Turner lofted Strasburg’s next pitch to right field for a sacrifice fly and the Dodgers’ first run. Strasburg narrowly held the damage there, snatching A.J. Pollock’s line drive to end the inning and his night after 85 pitches.
“I was actually kind of surprised he came out of the game when he did,” Turner said.
It was a gift, an opportunity the Dodgers had salivated about, but the door was slammed shut.