WASHINGTON -- For all the elite weaponry the top-seeded Dodgers bring to battle, they’ve known that the most likely spoilers of a third straight World Series appearance are the Nationals because of starting pitchers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
“I don't think so,” said Buehler. “I think when you look at it, obviously the other two teams left in the National League are pretty good, but I think you would say, starting rotation-wise, these are the two best, so I don't think it's super surprising.”
Mathematically, here’s the history: In Division Series, home teams are only 13-19 in Game 5s. The last time a Division Series went five games, in 2017, both the Indians and Nationals lost at home (to the Yankees and Cubs, respectively). In postseason history, including all series and Wild Card Games, home teams are 56-58 in winner-take-all games. And in 2016, the Dodgers beat the Nats in an epic Game 5 on the road.
“Game 5, win or go home, Buehler, Strasburg, those guys are premier pitchers in this league,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “And to get them at our place. We have just seen Strasburg recently and obviously, he had his way with us, so we're going to have to make adjustments. And I'm sure he's going to either do what he's been doing or make adjustments and we got to kind of -- I like the familiarity, the recent familiarity. There's going to be 54,000 fans there, but, yeah, as a fan, as a player, you live for moments like this.”
And not so much for moments like the bottom of the fifth of Game 4, when the Nats lit up the Dodgers’ bullpen for four runs and sent the series back to Los Angeles. Washington entered the tournament as the Wild Card, but are taking the Dodgers to the limit. The Dodgers had a very tough assignment as the pitching matchups unfolded, trying to avoid more Game 5 drama by opposing Scherzer with essentially a bullpen game. But their bullpen suddenly looked like the Nationals’.
After starter Rich Hill couldn’t get out of the third inning (the club was hoping he’d finish four) and Julio Urías (pitching on back-to-back nights) couldn’t complete his fifth-inning assignment, Ryan Zimmerman finished off any thoughts of a Dodgers road clinching by greeting Pedro Báez with a crushing three-run homer.
“I think I got too curveball-happy there in the third inning and a few of those pitches were executed for strikes, and I think they might have been missed [by home-plate umpire Doug Eddings], but that’s the way it is,” said the 39-year-old Hill, who willed his way into the start after missing much of the second half with injuries. “Overall, I would have liked to go deeper for us to give us a better chance.”
Scherzer went plenty deep. Three days after striking out the side in a Game 2 special guest relief appearance, he took the ball and kept the season alive, powering through seven innings with seven strikeouts and 109 pitches. He allowed a first-inning home run to Justin Turner and then nothing, finishing his night by barely escaping a bases-loaded jam after a Joc Pederson liner with the bases loaded landed just foul, then leaving with screams and fist pumps when Pederson grounded out. The Dodgers were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
“I didn’t watch the video but I’m assuming that ball was really close to being fair,” said Cody Bellinger. “If that falls, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
By contrast, Clayton Kershaw -- like Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner -- spent the game in the bullpen eagerly hoping for a lead to protect. Stretching. Pacing. Throwing a ball against the wall. Playing catch with the outfielders between innings. He couldn’t wait to get the call as a reliever but the game got away and he’ll be in the bullpen again on Wednesday to piggyback with Buehler, Roberts said. Kershaw threw a short practice session during the ninth inning.
“All hands on deck for sure,” said Kershaw. “I’ll be ready to go.”
The Dodgers did lead in the first inning. Turner, who put on a batting practice exhibition, extended it into the game,slugging an 0-1 fastball over the Dodgers’ bullpen. After injuries forced him to miss most of September, when he had only one home run, this was his second in as many days and ninth of his career in the postseason, which trails only Duke Snider (11) and Steve Garvey (10) in franchise history.
Washington loaded the bases in the third inning on a leadoff walk to Michael A. Taylor, a one-out bouncing single through the undefended right side of the infield to beat the shift, and a walk of Adam Eaton. Anthony Rendon tied the game with a sacrifice fly that Matt Beaty ran down on the warning track in left-center. Hill walked Juan Soto to load the bases again and was replaced by Kenta Maeda, who put down the inning and got through the fourth.
But in the fifth the Nats batted around, chasing Urías before Zimmerman took Báez over the center-field wall on a high fastball.
The Dodgers started a lineup with three rookie position players (Beaty, Gavin Lux and Will Smith) and they went a combined 1-for-8 with three strikeouts and three walks. The last time they tried that in the postseason was Game 5 of the 2015 NLDS against the Mets (Corey Seager, Enrique Hernández and Pederson).