The weapon the Washington Nationals were betting on wiping out the Dodgers, a left-handed thorn in their sides the last two seasons, emerged from the bullpen in the sixth inning Sunday.
Patrick Corbin appeared with the Nationals nursing a one-run lead. The Dodgers were 12 outs from losing Game 3 of a National League Division Series. Corbin was tasked to finish the job three days after starting Game 1.
The Dodgers were ready. They were surprised Max Scherzer pitched in relief in Game 2 because they didn’t anticipate the Nationals to maneuver that aggressively as they attempt to advance with only two relievers they trust. But Corbin’s appearance was expected. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he constructed his lineup with the left-hander in mind and was ready to make wholesale changes once he entered.
So David Freese, Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor, a trio of right-handed hitters not in the starting lineup, spent the game’s first five innings in and out of the batting cage. They took batting practice from coach Jose Vizcaino and fired up a pitching machine. Word reached them when Corbin began warming up. They knew their time was approaching.
When it arrived, the Dodgers erupted for seven two-out runs on two-run doubles by Russell Martin and Hernandez, and a three-run home run from Justin Turner on the way to a 10-4 victory.
They will play Game 4 on Monday with a 2-1 series lead and a chance to reach the NL Championship Series for the fourth season in a row.
“We just had an inning where we just showed up and got it done,” Freese said.
Cody Bellinger was the first batter Corbin faced. The NL most-valuable-player candidate won the left-on-left battle with a single to right field for his first hit of the series and first of two hits in the inning on the eighth pitch of the at-bat.
Two batters later, Freese, who became the fourth player in postseason history with three hits in a game he didn’t start, delivered a pinch-hit single the other way against the shift. One batter later, Martin was in an 0-and-2 ditch.
In that moment, Martin said he remembered the details of a meeting about facing Corbin. They discussed how he avoids throwing strikes with men in scoring position. He attempts to entice hitters to chase bad pitches. With that on his mind, the veteran catcher laid off the next two pitches before Corbin fed him another slider. Martin hit it into the left-center-field gap to alter the course of the series.
“The more pitches I saw the more I felt comfortable,” Martin said. “And I had some pretty easy takes, got back in the count, and then he just left a breaking ball a little bit up.”
Martin reached second base with a feet-first slide as the 36-year-old Freese raced around third base. Several Dodgers hopped the dugout rail to imitate third base coach Dino Ebel waving Freese home. When Freese scored to give the Dodgers the lead, Martin unleashed a fist pump. He had been three for his previous 35 at-bats in the postseason. He hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning.
Corbin, staggered but an out away from escaping, walked Taylor to bring up Hernandez. He too fell behind 0 and 2 before connecting for a double to left field.
Corbin’s outing ended after Max Muncy was intentionally walked with first base open. Right-hander Wander Suero was summoned to face Turner and the third baseman, after falling behind 0 and 2, busted the game open by demolishing a fastball for a three-run home run.
“Offense is definitely contagious,” Turner said, “and I think we all caught it that inning.”
Sunday marked the Dodgers’ first playoff game in Washington since they won Game 5 of an NLDS in 2016 on the backs of Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw. It was also a pitching rematch from July.
Hyun-Jin Ryu held the Nationals to one run in 61/3 innings in that game after tossing eight scoreless innings against the Nationals in May. On Sunday, he gave up a two-run home run to Juan Soto before settling down.
The left-hander gave up two runs and four hits, and walked two batters in five innings. He struck out three and threw 74 pitches.
The Dodgers used five relievers for the final four innings, concluding with Jansen’s first postseason appearance. He struck out two batters.
Sanchez was also on the ropes in the first inning after walking leadoff hitter Joc Pederson. Two batters later, Turner singled. Corey Seager worked a two-out walk to load the bases for A.J. Pollock. Sanchez struck out Pollock to wiggle free without giving up a run.
The right-hander found his groove from there. He expertly mixed speeds utilizing an expansive arsenal. He flummoxed the Dodgers with two different changeups. There was a slow one that topped out at 87 mph and a slower one — Roberts called it “an eephus changeup” — that bottomed out at 71 mph to strike out Pollock in the first inning. The two offerings produced 10 swing and misses.
Muncy deposited an 0-and-2 fastball 12 rows deep beyond the wall in right-center field in the fifth inning for his second home run of the series. Otherwise, Sanchez silenced the Dodgers, holding them to four hits and two walks, and striking out nine batters before Corbin was given the ball.
Until then, the Dodgers offense had been overmatched for much of the series. Of the 66 outs they made through the fifth inning Sunday, 38 were strikeouts.
Corbin’s emergence was not supposed to help. He had limited the Dodgers to three earned runs across 361/3 innings in five starts since the beginning of the 2018 season. In Game 1 of this series, he gave up two runs (one earned) over six innings.
The Dodgers knew what was coming. They knew that Corbin throws slider after slider, and for two years they still couldn’t figure him out. They were ready for him Sunday.