The baseball rocketed through the harsh crosswind and landed on a patch of grass beyond the center-field wall to an earsplitting rumble. As Ryan Zimmerman trotted around the bases, howling in celebration of his three-run home run Monday night, Clayton Kershaw observed from the Dodgers bullpen at Nationals Park about 100 feet away.
Kershaw was available to pitch in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, to perhaps replicate what happened three years ago in the same ballpark when he closed out the Washington Nationals. He waited for his opportunity in a blue jacket, occasionally getting up to stay loose. The fastball Zimmerman clubbed off Pedro Baez eradicated the possibility.
The blast busted open a tight game, ultimately handing the Dodgers a 6-1 loss and forcing a decisive Game 5 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday. It will be Walker Buehler against Stephen Strasburg for the chance to advance to the National League Championship Series.
“As a fan, as a player,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “you live for moments like this.”
The Dodgers were left to cover 61/3 innings with their bullpen to avoid Wednesday’s do-or-die scenario once Rich Hill, making his third start since reinjuring the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, exited with the bases loaded and two outs in the third inning.
Hill departed angry. He fumed in the dugout. He took a gulp of water, spit it out, crushed the paper cup, and chucked it to the ground. He cursed while doing it. Minutes later, after Kenta Maeda got Howie Kendrick to ground out to execute a successful escape, Roberts approached Hill. He put his hands on the veteran’s shoulders and offered words of encouragement.
Maeda followed his work in the fourth inning with a scoreless fifth before A.J. Pollock pinch-hit for him to end his outing as Julio Urias warmed up in the bullpen. Urias logged two innings in Game 3 on Sunday. He pitched on back-to-back days just twice in the regular season. Both instances came in September and neither included Urias throwing multiple innings in one of the outings. But Urias was summoned anyway.
“You’re trying to get one inning out of him,” Roberts said. “In that part of the order, handedness didn’t matter.”
Urias surrendered a leadoff single to Trea Turner. Adam Eaton dropped a sacrifice bunt to move Turner to second base. On cue, Anthony Rendon slashed a single to score Turner. Two batters later, Kendrick cracked a two-out single to chase Urias with runners on the corners.
“I was ready to go in whatever situation,” Urias said through an interpreter. “I’ve done it before. I’ve pitched back-to-back games before. My mind was 100%. My arm was 100%. It was a situation where you couldn’t miss a lot of pitches and I missed a lot of pitches.”
Baez jumped ahead on Zimmerman with a slider down in the zone for a called strike. His next offering was a 97-mph fastball. It was not poorly located; the pitch was located above the strike zone. Zimmerman crushed it to give Washington a 5-1 lead.
“It’s something that the result certainly wasn’t what we would have hoped for,” Roberts said, “but as far as kind of the process, I love it.”
The Dodgers stacked their lineup with seven left-handed hitters, including Hill, to counter Max Scherzer. Matt Beaty, one of the seven, started in left field over Pollock after Pollock went 0 for 11 with nine strikeouts in the first three games of the series.
Scherzer relentlessly attacked the strike zone knowing his club depended on him pitching deep into the game to stand a chance. The Nationals bullpen holds just two reliable options. Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals’ other two elite starting pitchers, weren’t available. Strasburg threw a bullpen session earlier Monday. Corbin was rocked in two-thirds of an inning Sunday. A long outing from Scherzer was imperative for the Nationals to survive.
The aggression cost Scherzer in the first inning when Justin Turner deposited a 96-mph fastball in the Dodgers bullpen. He didn’t miss many bats early, but improved as the game progressed, retiring 14 of 15 batters from the second to the seventh inning.
There, the Dodgers mounted a threat. Beaty swatted a one-out single before Scherzer issued consecutive walks. With David Freese, one of the most prolific postseason performers in recent history, on the bench, Roberts elected to have Chris Taylor pinch-hit in the pitcher’s spot. Taylor struck out on the eighth pitch of the at-bat. Joc Pederson followed with a line drive that landed inches foul down the right-field line. He grounded out on Scherzer’s 109th pitch to extinguish the Dodgers’ best scoring opportunity as they went 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position.
“It was a matter of inches,” Roberts said. “All that could have obviously flipped the inning. You never know what would have happened. But, shoot, Max threw the heck out of the baseball tonight.”
Scherzer roared as he walked off the mound for the final time. He punched high fives in the dugout. He held the Dodgers to one run and four hits. He did his job when his counterpart couldn’t.
Hill was built up to handle only four innings or throw 60 pitches. Even if he was sharp, he would force the Dodgers to piece together at least five innings with their bullpen. He got tripped up in the third.
Trouble began when he issued a leadoff walk to Michael A. Taylor, the Nationals’ No. 8 hitter. Scherzer struck out on a two-strike foul bunt attempt before Turner slapped a groundball to the right side. It would have been a routine groundout, but the Dodgers were in a shift with three infielders to the left side of second base. Hill unleashed a few cuss words in frustration as the ball trickled into the outfield.
He exacerbated the situation by walking Eaton to load the bases for Rendon, the Nationals’ MVP candidate. Rendon shot a scare through the sky to the wall in left field. Beaty caught it for the second out. Taylor tagged up and scored. Hill stayed in the game to face Juan Soto, the left-handed-hitting half of the Nationals’ dangerous one-two punch, and walked him to fill the bases again. That ended his night.
“If I could’ve finished that third inning,” Hill said, “that might have changed things.”
Maeda entered to face Kendrick after throwing five pitches in two-thirds of an inning Sunday. Roberts explained Maeda’s recent usage prompted him to give the ball to Urias once he secured four outs. Within minutes, the Dodgers trailed by four runs and thousands of red towels were twirling, making a Kershaw appearance improbable; Roberts said he would have used the left-hander only late with the score tied or the Dodgers ahead.
So the only pitches Kershaw threw Monday were in a light bullpen session during the ninth inning in preparation for Wednesday, when he will almost certainly piggyback Buehler. Afterward, Kershaw said it will be “all hands on deck” to extend the season. He spoke in a clubhouse that was prepared for a raucous party. Coiled plastic hung above the lockers. Black fabric was taped to the floor. The Dodgers wanted to celebrate at Nationals Park again and it didn’t happen. They must win Wednesday to celebrate again in 2019.