The fans remaining at Dodger Stadium, the ones loyal enough to stick around to witness the stunning conclusion to the Dodgers’ season, booed Dave Roberts when he finally emerged from the dugout in the 10th inning on Wednesday night. They loudly echoed their anger during his walk back after the manager finally took the ball from Joe Kelly and gave it to Kenley Jansen.
It was too late to salvage the Dodgers from elimination in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. The irreparable damage was done. Howie Kendrick had already smashed a fastball from the erratic Kelly over the center-field wall 410 feet away for a spine-cracking, go-ahead grand slam. Clayton Kershaw had already allowed two home runs on three pitches in the eighth inning to add another page to his playoff misery. The championship drought was on its way to extending to a 31st season.
When Justin Turner’s line drive landed in a diving Michael A. Taylor’s glove for the final out of their 7-3, season-ending loss to the Washington Nationals, the Dodgers watched another team celebrate on their home field for the third straight October.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t, you can’t script,” Roberts said.
It is the earliest the Dodgers have been bounced from the playoffs since 2015. After consecutive trips to the World Series, it was their most emotional of their recent exits. It was one they didn’t expect this soon after plowing through the National League West for their seventh straight division title and a franchise-record 106 wins.
“It’s a special group,” Kershaw said, his eyes red and puffy. “A lot of great guys. Makes it even harder.”
The Dodgers’ game plan the entire series was to wait out the Nationals’ vaunted starting pitchers and exploit their dismal bullpen. On Wednesday, the Nationals, the heavy underdogs in the series, used that blueprint to topple the Dodgers and advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time.
To score runs Wednesday, the Dodgers wanted to avoid chasing pitches Stephen Strasburg threw out of the strike zone. They wanted to force him to feed them strikes to bounce him from the game early and prey on the Nationals’ faulty bullpen. It’s the same goal the Dodgers establish for every game. It’s more difficult to execute when someone of Strasburg’s ability is throwing the baseball.
The Dodgers made it all seem so simple in the first two innings. Joc Pederson cracked Strasburg’s third pitch to left field. The flyball landed in the Dodgers bullpen and confusion ensued. Nationals left field Juan Soto raised his arms immediately, signaling for a ground-rule double, as the closest umpire signaled for a home run.
Pederson trotted around the bases to score, but the breakthrough was temporary. The ball had somehow slipped through a window in the wall into the bullpen. Pederson was given a ground-rule double after a tidy 17-second replay review delay. The correction, it quickly turned out, was moot.
Max Muncy stepped to the plate and saw three straight curveballs to begin the at-bat. None was a strike.. Muncy laid off all of them for a 3-0 count. Strasburg was forced to attack. Muncy took the next pitch — a fastball — for a strike before Strasburg threw another one. Muncy pounced, clubbing the 95-mph offering into the right-field pavilion for a two-run home run. It was his first career hit off Strasburg in 16 plate appearances. He raised his right arm as he rounded first base. The ballpark shook.
A familiar sequence stung Strasburg to begin the second inning. The right-hander fell behind Enrique Hernandez with a first-pitch curveball down and away. The next pitch was a fastball down the middle. Hernandez swatted it for a leadoff home run and a 3-0 Dodgers lead.
The swift outburst suggested the Dodgers had cracked the Strasburg code after he limited them to a run in six innings in Game 2, but they didn’t. Strasburg allowed just two more baserunners — on an error and a single — over the next four innings before exiting,
So the Dodgers reached the Nationals’ bullpen in the seventh ahead by two runs, nine outs from a fourth straight trip to the National League Championship Series, before it all collapsed.
Walker Buehler, the Dodgers’ 25-year-old budding ace, delivered another dynamite performance on a big stage. The right-hander held Washington to one run on four hits across 62/3 innings, wiggling free from jams in the fifth and sixth. He departed with two on and two outs in the seventh inning after throwing a career-high 117 pitches.
Buehler’s night ended when he issued a six-pitch walk to Trea Turner with two runners on base and two outs in the seventh. He walked off the mound, head down, to a thunderous applause as Kershaw was summoned to counter the left-handed-hitting Adam Eaton.
“We were home-free,” Buehler recalled thinking as he wiped tears away in a somber Dodgers clubhouse.
Kershaw did not waste time. He struck out Eaton with three pitches, finishing him off on an 89-mph slider. Kershaw released a roar.
“I just felt that the way Clayton was efficient,” Roberts said, “I felt great about running Clayton back out there for two hitters.”
Kershaw’s next three pitches, however, offered disastrous results. The first was a curveball to Anthony Rendon below the zone to start the eighth inning. The next was another pitch below the zone, this time a slider that Rendon golfed into the left-field pavilion.
The third pitch was a slider up in the zone to Juan Soto. The 20-year-old wunderkind crushed it into the other pavilion to tie the score 3-3. Kershaw crouched once the loud contact was made. He took off his cap in shock. He didn’t bother to look. Moments later, he handed the ball to Roberts and walked off the field to boos. He took a seat on the bench by himself.
“I had one job to do,” Kershaw said. “Just get three outs. Got one out and didn’t get the other two. Went over the fence and cost us the game right there. It’s a terrible feeling. No excuses. Just didn’t make pitches and guy hit it over the fence, twice.”
The score remained tied until the 10th when Kelly took the mound after recording a 10-pitch scoreless ninth despite not logging more than one inning since Aug. 24. He issued a leadoff walk to Eaton. Rendon followed with a ground-rule double to bring up the left-handed-hitting Soto. Adam Kolarek, who had retired Soto three times in the series, remained in the bullpen, but Roberts chose to intentionally walk Soto to load the bases for Kendrick against Kelly.
“I liked Joe right there in that spot, I really did,” Roberts said. “After 10 pitches there was no stress. Ball coming out well.”
Roberts’ decision backfired again. Kendrick fouled off the first pitch, a curveball, before clubbing a 97-mph fastball over the inner part of the plate off the Dodgers’ $25-million offseason signing.
Jansen, the reliever the Dodgers entrusted in those moments since the start of their postseason run, watched from the bullpen, warm and ready to go. Roberts inserted him after Kendrick’s swat to make his second appearance in the series, too late to alter the unexpected final chapter to a Dodgers season that was filled with so much October promise.
“This one sucks,” Hernandez said. “Winning 106 games in the regular season and going home after one round, it sucks.”