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Dodgers

Column: Dodgers’ collapse against Nationals extends their October nightmare

This is not real. This cannot be happening.

The Dodgers did not just collapse all over October again. The Dodgers did not just blow another season with their Hall of Fame pitcher crumbling again. The Dodgers did not just extend a 31-year championship drought with boneheaded bullpen decisions by their manager again.

Yes, they did. Good Lord, they did.

The nightmare that never ends continued in its most fitful, frightful fashion yet Wednesday at the October house of horrors known as Dodger Stadium surrounded by the postseason demons that have inhabited Clayton Kershaw and Dave Roberts.

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In the fifth and deciding game of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals, the Dodgers held a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning with the ball inexplicably in Kershaw’s hands. Three pitches and two blasted home runs later, the game was tied.

Two innings after that, with the ball equally inexplicably in the hands of reliever Joe Kelly, a 10th-inning grand slam by the Nationals’ Howie Kendrick finished it.

In front of a booing crowd that had been earlier stunned into silence, the Dodgers’ season ended in a 7-3 defeat that marked the worst collapse in their current seven-year postseason run.

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No, seriously, this was bad. This was really, really, really bad.

“Disappointing is an understatement,” Roberts said.

They win a club record 106 games over six months, and their championship hopes end in less than a week.

They have arguably their best team in the last 31 years and overwhelm the mediocre National League for the entire season, yet when they finally play a game that matters, they lose their minds.

They tease their loyal fans with seemingly their best chance at breaking their World Series championship dry spell, yet those fans end the game staring in shock at a pile of Nationals dancing and hugging on the field.

Just like the Boston Red Sox celebrated there last year. Just like the Houston Astros celebrated there two seasons ago.

This was worse than all of that, worse than those losses to the St. Louis Cardinals, worse than the collapse against the New York Mets, worse than anything.

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“This one stings,” said Cody Bellinger in a somber clubhouse marked by puffy eyes and whispered quotes. “We really thought we had it.”

This was the worst because the Dodgers had the lead, and momentum from a brilliant 6 2/3 innings from Walker Buehler, and power from two home runs off the formidable Stephen Strasburg in the game’s first two innings.

This was the worst because when the eighth inning began, Chavez Ravine was rocking, the Nationals were reeling and the Dodger bullpen was filled with rested and reliable relievers and the doggone game should have been over.

“We had them on the ropes,” Will Smith said.

But Kershaw was on the mound. What was Kershaw doing on the mound?

Kershaw had replaced Buehler with two out in the seventh inning in a move that initially made sense. There were runners on first and second and lefty Adam Eaton was at the plate. Kershaw, despite his awful history of postseason starts, has a career 1.98 ERA out of the bullpen.

One batter, that makes sense, and when he struck out Eaton on three pitches and howled, it seemed like he had been the perfect pitcher in the perfect spot.

But then he came back out in the eighth even though the nearly unhittable Kenta Maeda was warm and ready. He came back out, and lasted about five minutes.

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Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw suffers one more disappointment and so does a city starved for a title.

Kershaw threw three pitches, and two of them were blasted into next week. Anthony Rendon crushed one to left. Juan Soto followed on the next pitch with a long home run to right-center field, and the game was tied.

“I had one job to do, just get three outs,” Kershaw said later. “Got one out and didn’t get the other two. Went over the fence and cost us the game right there.”

Kershaw walked off the field to boos. He sat by himself on an otherwise empty dugout bench while Maeda struck out the side.

“I let down the guys in the clubhouse, that’s the hardest part every year,” Kershaw said. “When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame for it, it’s not fun. ... Yeah ... it’s just a terrible feeling.”

It was only the second time in his career Kershaw allowed home runs on consecutive pitches. The other time was, fittingly, in the playoffs.

He now has a 4.43 postseason ERA compared with a 2.44 regular season ERA, easily the greatest disparity of any regular starting pitcher in baseball history.

Afterward, for one of the few times, he pointedly addressed that disparity.

“Everything people say is true right now about postseason,” he said. “I understand that. Nothing I can do about it right now. Terrible feeling. It really is.”

He takes the blame because the ball was in his hands, but, again, what was the ball doing in his hands? By coming out for that second inning, wasn’t he being put in a position to fail? Point one finger at Kershaw, but point the other at Roberts.

“I felt good about Clayton right there.… I liked Clayton.… We had Clayton ready for whatever today,” Roberts said. “I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation.”

Roberts made one mistake leaving Kershaw in the game in the eighth, then another one leaving Kelly in the game two innings later.

Kelly retired the side in the ninth, and the rested closer Kenley Jansen was in the bullpen, yet Kelly started the 10th and promptly walked Eaton, allowed a double to Rendon, and then intentionally walked Soto before facing Kendrick.

Yes, he was still in there for Kendrick, who crushed a one-strike fastball over the center-field fence to leave fans frozen in place and staring while the former Dodger and Angel danced into his teammates’ arms.

“I liked Joe in that spot, I really did,” Roberts said. “After 10 pitches there was no stress, ball coming out well. So for him to go out there and take down that inning and for Kenley to take down the other part of the order, I really felt good about it.”

Howie Kendrick was struggling mightily in the NLDS until his grand-slam home run propelled the Nationals to victory over the Dodgers in Game 5.

Jansen pitched just 1 2/3 innings in the five-game series, appearing just twice, and even if he didn’t have his best year, doesn’t your record-setting closer get a little more work than that? That’s surely just one of many questions being asked today by fans, who began showing their anger at Roberts late Wednesday night.

When he came to the mound to finally relieve Kelly in the 10th, he was booed as loudly as any Dodger has been booed in any postseason in recent memory.

“If the blame falls on me, I have no problem with it,” Roberts said.

The blame will fall on him, absolutely, that’s how it will work after another unfathomable ending to another unreal season.

While the Nationals advance to the NL Championship Series by winning their first postseason series in franchise history, Roberts and his team will spend the rest of the winter facing the answer to a question that has now plagued Dodger fans for 31 years and counting.

How on Earth could they have blown it again?


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