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October 11, 2019 / Nat Anacostia

The Nats win the 2019 NLDS: We believed when nobody else believed

The Los Angeles Dodgers were the better baseball team. You might argue that their starting rotation didn’t quite match that of the Nationals, but if that was the case, it was only by the narrowest of margins. Their batters hit 279 home runs, compared to 231 by the Nats. Their bullpen was very good (ranked third in the NL in FIP– and fourth in ERA–), whereas the Nats’ bullpen was awful. They led MLB in defensive runs saved. Their bench was deep and versatile, allowing the team to swap players in and out and gain the platoon advantage.

But despite obvious weaknesses, the Nationals were well suited to upset the 106-win Dodgers in a five-game series. And by repeatedly coming back from behind and “staying in the fight” until the 10th inning of Game 5, that’s exactly what they were able to do.

Game 1, Thursday October 3. With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg having piggy backed to get the win in the Wild Card Game two days earlier, the start for Game 1 in Los Angeles went to Patrick Corbin. Whether he was nervous or was just struggling for command, Corbin issued four walks in the first inning and gave up a run. After that, Corbin settled down and allowed just two singles over the next three innings. In the bottom of the fifth, after striking out the first two batters, Corbin gave up a walk and infield single, placing runners on first and third. He then got Muncy to hit a ground ball that Howie Kendrick was unable to field. It was Kendrick’s second error of the game and put the Dodgers up 2 to 0. Meanwhile the Nats were unable to get anything going against Buehler. Leading off the second, Juan Soto hit a single but was doubled off on a lineout. In the fourth, Buehler gave up three walks but got out of his bases loaded jam. Both starting pitchers went six innings turned it over to their respective bullpens with the Dodgers leading 2 to 0.

Then we got to compare the two teams’ bullpens. The Dodgers brought in Kolarek, a lefty sidewinder, to get Soto out, then Maeda set down five Nats in a row. The Nats had Tanner Rainey face three batters in the seventh; he gave up a walk and a single and was followed by Fernando Rodney, who also gave up a walk and a single before recording the final out. The Nats now trailed 4 to 0. Hunter Strickland got the call in the bottom of the eighth and gave up two home runs.

In the top of the ninth, Trea Turner hit a leadoff double off Joe Kelly—only the Nats’ second hit of the game—before Kelly set down the next three Nats in order. The Nats were throughly outplayed In the 6–0 game, and all of their deficiencies were exposed.

Game 2, Friday October 4. The loss in Game One made it critical for the Nats to win Game Two to avoid falling into a deep hole. The pitching match-up was Strasburg against Kershaw. Trea Turner opened the top of the first with a double. After Adam Eaton popped out, Anthony Rendon walked and Soto was hit by a pitch, loading the bases. A single by Kendrick put the Nats ahead 1 to 0. Then Ryan Zimmerman fouled out and Kurt Suzuki struck out, so the Nats weren’t able to further capitalize on a very shaky first inning by Kershaw.

In the second inning, Víctor Robles was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, and after two outs Eaton singled and Rendon doubled, increasing the Nats’ lead to 3 to 0.

Meanwhile, Strasburg was dominating the Dodgers. He got them out on strikeouts (10 total) and groundouts and didn’t allow a base runner until Will Smith singled with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. Strasburg had pitched three innings in relief in the Wild Card game on Tuesday, so we wondered how long he could last. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, fatigue finally seemed to catch up, as he gave up a single to Beaty and a double to Pederson, followed by a sacrifice fly to Justin Turner. He got out of the inning with lineout to the pitcher, but the Nats’ lead was now 3 to 1.

In the bottom of the seventh, Sean Doolittle took over in relief and struck out Bellinger, but then gave up a home run to Muncy before getting out of the inning. The score was now 3 to 2.

Meanwhile, the Nats hitters were challenging the Dodgers’ bullpen—Báez, Kolarek, May, and Urías—which had taken over in the top of the seventh. Trea Turner and Eaton led off the top of the seventh with singles but were left stranded. In the eighth, Zimmerman’s led off with a double, and Suzuki followed with a walk. Asdrúbal Cabrera singled to drive in Zimmerman, widening the Nats’ lead to 4 to 2. In the eighth inning Robles had to leave the game with a hamstring injury—Michael A. Taylor would take his place in center for the rest of the series.

In the bottom of the eighth, Scherzer was called in to pitch an inning of relief on his “throw day.” He struck out the side. In the bottom of the ninth, Daniel Hudson was called on to get a two-run save. Justin Turner led off with double, but Hudson then struck out Pollock and got Bellinger to pop out to Rendon on a play that actually turned out to be fairly difficult. With two outs and a runner on second, Davey Martinez called for Muncy to be intentionally walked, putting the tying run on base. Hudson then walked Smith on four pitches, loading the bases. After throwing seven straight fastballs away to Seager, Hudson came in with a slider and Seager swung through it, giving the Nats the win.

The decision to issue the intentional walk to Muncy caused the predictable consternation among the analytical community. Joe Posnanski of The Athletic makes the case against the move with his usual elegance, while Ben Clemens of Fangraphs goes through the numbers in excruciating detail (or wonderful, depending on your tastes). My own take is a little more relaxed. With two outs, the Nats’ win probability was very high regardless of the intentional walk—we’re talking 94% without the walk versus 90% with it. The pitcher has one out to get, and if he really feels much more comfortable not facing Muncy, I’m willing to let him face the batter he’s comfortable going after.

Game 3, Sunday October 6. With the series moving to Washington for Games 3 and 4, Aníbal Sánchez faced off against MLB’s ERA leader, Hyun-Jin Ryu. In the top of the first, the Dodgers loaded the bases on a single and two walks, but Sánchez worked out of the jam. In the bottom of the first, Eaton walked and Soto homered, giving the Nats a 2–0 lead. Both pitchers then settled settled in. The Nats led off the bottom of the fourth with a pair of singles, but a double play squelched any rally. In the top of the fifth, Muncy homered to make it 2–1.

Corbin came in in relief in the top of the sixth. He gave up a lead-off single to Belinger and followed it with two strikeouts. Then Freese came in as a pinch hitter and singled. Corbin got ahead of Martin 0–2, but the Dodgers catcher evened the count, then doubled into the left-center gap. The Dodgers went ahead 3–2. Things got worse. Corbin walked Chris Taylor and gave up a double to Kike Hernández, making it 5–2. Wander Suero came in to try to stop the bleeding but immediately gave up a homer to Justin Turner, making it 8–2 Dodgers.

In the bottom of the sixth Kelly was pitching for the Dodgers, and the Nats tried to get back into the game. Rendon and Soto drew walks, followed by a single by Kendrick. Suddenly the bases were loaded with no outs. Kelly threw a wild pitch, and Rendon scored with Soto and Kendrick advancing. Yan Gomes walked, loading the bases again, still with no outs, and when Urías replaced Kelly on the mound, Cabrera came in as a pinch hitter. He hit a fly ball to right, scoring Soto on a sacrifice fly, but when Kendrick tagged to advance to third he hesitated, then failed to return to second, allowing the Dodgers to easily double him up on the way to third. Rather than one out and two base runners, the Nats now had two outs and only a runner at first. The Nats now trailed 8 to 4. Michael A. Taylor popped out to end the inning, but Kendrick’s base running gaffe had killed the rally.

The rest of the game was fairly uneventful. Rodney got into a bases loaded jam in the top of the seventh, but was able to get out of it unscathed. In the top of the ninth Strickland gave up a two-run homer to Martin. Meanwhile, the Dodgers bullpen shut down the Nats’ offense, and game ended as a 10 to 4 triumph for the Dodgers.

Game 4, Monday October 7. Down two games to one, the Nats would need two consecutive wins to salvage the series. Scherzer took the mound for Game 4 facing Rich Hill.

In the top of the first, Scherzer gave up a two-out solo homer to Justin Turner, and the Dodgers jumped to an early 1–0 lead. In the bottom of the third, the Nats evened the score when Rendon hit a sacrifice fly to drive in Taylor. Hill, who was on a short pitch count, left before the end of the inning, and the Dodgers turned to their bullpen.

In the bottom of the fifth with Urías pitching, Trea Turner led off with a single. Eaton sacrificed him over, and Rendon singled to drive him in. The Nats were up 2 to 1. Soto popped out, but Kendrick singled to place runners on first and third with two outs. Báez relieved the left-handed Urías, but Martinez decided to stick with the right-handed Zimmerman rather than going to a left-handed pinch hitter. On the second pitch, a fastball above the top of the zone, Zim got under it and drove it to center for a home run, putting the Nats up 5 to 1.

The Nats added another run in the bottom of the sixth on a Rendon sacrifice fly. Meanwhile, Scherzer managed to shut down the Dodgers after the first inning home run. In the seventh inning, starting to run on fumes, he gave up a single and two walks to load the bases with one out. But Martinez left him in and Scherzer struck out Taylor. Pederson hit a foul ball that came within a couple of inches of being a three-run double, but Scherzer managed to get a ground-out to end the inning. In 7 innings he allowed 1 run on 4 hits and 3 walks, striking out 7.

Doolittle came in for the top of the eighth. The first batter he faced, Muncy, drove a ball into deep center, but a strong wind blowing in knocked it down for Taylor to catch. Doolittle set down all three batters in eighth and also got the first out in the ninth. Hudson came in to get the last two outs, and the Nats won 6 to 1.

Game 5, Wednesday October 9. Back in Los Angeles for the finale, Strasburg was facing Buehler. For the first couple of innings, Strasburg was unable to command his curveball, allowing the Dodgers to sit on his fastball. Pederson led off with a double, followed by a Muncy two-run homer. Leading off the second, Hernández hit a solo home run, and the Nats were down 3 to 0.

Buehler held down the Nationals, and Strasburg settled down and held down the Dodgers. In the top of the fifth, Suzuki led off with a walk followed by a Taylor single. Strasburg was unable to bunt them over, though, and Buehler set down Turner and Eaton to get out of the inning. In the sixth, Rendon led off with a double, followed by an RBI single from Soto, and the Dodgers’ lead narrowed to 3 to 1.

Leading off the top of the seventh, a Buehler fast ball ricocheted off Suzuki’s wrist and hit him in the face, and Suzuki fell to the ground. He was pulled from the game, but we later learned that the injury wasn’t as bad as we initially feared. Buehler got two outs, then walked Trea Turner, and Roberts called in Kershaw to face Eaton. Eaton struck out, and the Dodgers held onto their 3 to 1 lead.

Strasburg had gone six innings and pitched quite well after the two early home runs. His final line was 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk in 6 innings, striking out 7. Rainey pitched the bottom of the seventh and retired both batters he faced, then Corbin was called on to retire the lefty Pederson.

Roberts decided to keep Kershaw in to face Rendon and Soto in the top of the eighth, a decision for which he was subsequently vilified. In three pitches, Kershaw gave up home runs to both Nationals hitters, and the game was suddenly tied 3 to 3. Maeda was brought in and got the next three Nats out. Corbin pitched a scoreless bottom of the eighth and Kelly set down the Nats in the top of the ninth. Hudson pitched the bottom of the ninth, and despite a hard hit fly ball by Smith that had the Dodgers prematurely ready to celebrate, Hudson got out of the inning only giving up a single.

Roberts left Kelly in for the top of the tenth, and Eaton led off the inning with a walk. Surprisingly not bringing in Jansen, the Dodgers’ erstwhile closer, Kelly stayed in and gave up a double to Rendon. Soto was intentionally walked, and Kendricks came up with the bases loaded and no outs. After fouling off a curve, Kendrick drove a fastball into deep center for a grand slam, giving the Nats a 7 to 3 lead. In one blow, Kendrick redeemed the three fielding errors and the base running gaffe that had previously tarnished his series record.. In the bottom of the tenth, Doolittle got a strikeout and a groundout, then Michael A. Taylor made a diving catch on a Justin Turner fly ball to end the game and give the Nationals their first-ever NLDS victory.

The Dodgers had outscored the Nationals 22 to 21, outhomered them 9 to 5, and led in OPS .730 to .694. But timely pitching and hitting enabled to Nationals to take advantage of the short series and beat the Los Angeles juggernaut. The next day, the Nationals flew to St. Louis for the NLCS.

Managerial decisions. Rather than focusing on Davey’s interntional walks and the timing of various pitching changes and pinch hitters, I’m going to point to another decision that I considered questionable. The Nats carried Austin Voth on their NLDS roster but Davey never used him. Based on what I’ve seen, Voth seems like a talented young pitcher, and I’d rather have seen him called on to face the Dodgers’ sluggers than Strickland, who gave up 4 runs in 2 innings, or Suero, who gave up two hits and a run while getting only one out. While using Voth probably wouldn’t have changed the outcomes of any of the games, it would be nice to see if Voth could be used to help fill the obvioius, gaping hole in the Nationals’ bullpen.

 

 

 

 

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