So after all this, after a franchise-record 106 victories, the season will come down to one game for the Dodgers.
In the wake of a 6-1 loss to the Washington Nationals on Monday night in Game 4 of their National League Division Series, the most talented roster constructed by Andrew Friedman’s front office is nine innings from realizing a nightmare. The greatest regular-season team in Dodgers history is 27 outs from becoming the latest source of anguish for a city that has waited 31 years for its next World Series championship.
With the series tied at two games apiece, the Dodgers and Nationals will meet again Wednesday in Los Angeles for a winner-take-all Game 5. Walker Buehler will start for the Dodgers, Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals.
The stakes are considerable. With a victory, the Dodgers will advance to their fourth consecutive NL Championship Series. A defeat will brand them chokers by fans who are reluctant to give them a pass since they agreed to a disastrous television contract that has blacked out their regular-season games from the majority of the market.
“Win or go home,” manager Dave Roberts said.
This wasn’t supposed be the scenario at this stage of the postseason. In the World Series, maybe. But not in the first round, not against a wild-card team with an amateur bullpen.
Six months of domination are now threatened to be wiped away by a week of faintheartedness. October baseball has once again revealed itself as a theater of surprises, perhaps to the disappointment of the Dodgers and their supporters.
Their position is precarious, but they still have the upper hand.
“Better to be home than on the road in Game 5,” outfielder Cody Bellinger said.
The home-field advantage was their reward for leading the NL in wins. The Dodgers were 59-22 at Dodger Stadium, which counted as the best home record in the league.
And in the first four games of this NLDS, they also gained an edge over the Nationals. Clayton Kershaw will be in the Dodgers’ bullpen in Game 5, with four days off since his last competitive pitch. Patrick Corbin, the Nationals’ Game 1 starter, will be available to his team in a similar role, but the left-hander threw 35 pitches in a catastrophic relief appearance Sunday.
Corbin replaced 35-year-old junkballer Anibal Sanchez in Game 3, his presence made necessary by the Nationals’ lack of serviceable relief pitching. Corbin was blasted for six runs in the sixth inning of that game, which the Dodgers went on to win 10-4.
Kershaw was in the Dodgers’ bullpen in Game 4, but Roberts was able to be more selective with how he used him, courtesy of his team’s superior pitching depth. Or so he thought.
Starter Rich Hill lasted only 2-2/3 innings, but Kenta Maeda navigated the Dodgers through the fourth inning with the score tied 1-1.
The problems came in the fifth inning, when Roberts called on Julio Urias. The 23-year-old left-hander had pitched two innings the previous day. Urias gave up the go-ahead run on a single by Anthony Rendon, who advanced to third base on a two-out single by Howie Kendrick. Urias was replaced by Pedro Baez, who promptly served up a three-run home run to Ryan Zimmerman.
The Dodgers were down 5-1.
Until then, Kershaw had walked around the bullpen. Between the innings, he had played catch with left fielder Matt Beaty. With the game out of grasp, the Dodgers elected to preserve Kershaw for a potential relief appearance on Wednesday.
“All hands on deck, for sure,” Kershaw said. “I’ll be ready to go.”
Buehler, who blanked the Nationals over six innings in a Game 1 triumph, was comforted by knowing Kershaw could follow him.
“I think it also helps to know you got everyone else behind you,” Buehler said.
But Strasburg has looked like the most dominant pitcher in this series, as he registered 10 strikeouts over six innings in a Game 2 win for the Nationals.
Buehler said he was looking forward to the game.
“I think the thing that’s kind of lost in playoff baseball is that it’s really fun,” he said. “I think the pressure and things like that, if you can spin it in your head the right way, it can make it more fun.”
Of course, defeat could invite torment. The Dodgers have experienced various forms of such agony over the past several seasons.
Considering everything they have accomplished this season, a loss Wednesday could be the cruelest of them all.