WASHINGTON -- It was earlier than usual that the Dodgers’ cadre of right-handed bench bats started preparing for an inning the likes of which we’d never seen in the postseason.
The Nationals started a right-hander -- Anibal Sanchez -- in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park, but the Dodgers knew a notable left-hander -- Patrick Corbin -- was available in relief. That meant the quartet of right-handed hitters on L.A.’s bench had a better than average chance of playing a role in a game that would decide whether the Dodgers woke up Monday morning one victory from the NL Championship Series, or one loss from going home.
All seven of the runs scored with two outs, matching the 2007 Red Sox in World Series Game 1 and the 2010 Giants in World Series Game 2 for the biggest two-out rallies in postseason history. But all seven of the Dodgers’ runs scored on two-strike hits. That had never been done before.
In fact, all of those run-scoring hits came after the hitter fell into an 0-2 count.
It was a rally for the ages.
“We knew tonight could be a little different, especially with [Max] Scherzer going in in the eighth [inning of Game 2],” David Freese said. “It was, ‘Here we go. This is how it might go down the rest of the series. We pretty much stayed hot all the way through the end of batting practice.”
Freese, Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernández got to work in the batting cage off the visitors’ dugout in the first inning. They took swings against the pitching machine. They took flips from special assignment instructor José Vizcaíno. When Corbin started moving around in the Nationals’ bullpen, word was sent to the cage that the time was nearing.
In the sixth inning, it was time to take swings in the batter’s box.
Here are the critical at-bats that fueled a game-breaking rally:
1) Cody Bellinger
The situation: None on, none out, Dodgers trail, 2-1
The outcome: Single to right field
Dodgers’ win expectancy before/after: 34.7 percent/40.5 percent
Bellinger was 0-for-2 in the game and 0-for-8 in the postseason as he dug in against Corbin, against whom he’d struck out twice in the Game 1 loss in Los Angeles on Thursday. Corbin was tough that night, mitigating wildness (five walks) with a nasty diet of sliders (nine strikeouts) to make it through six quality innings. Bellinger won the battle this time, lining a single over first base.
“I’m just trying to get on base and get the momentum going,” he said. “It was a huge inning for us. That’s a huge inning in a playoff game.”
“It started with Belli,” Turner said. “He hasn't had much success in the first two games, and he's in there grinding, trying to get locked in and he wants to be that MVP guy for us that he's been all year. And that at-bat kind of unlocked him.”
Corbin, whose 238 regular-season strikeouts tied the Tigers’ Matthew Boyd for most among MLB’s left-handers, promptly offered a reminder that this was not going to be easy. When Corbin struck out Corey Seager, it was the Dodgers’ 16th out of the game and 10th whiff. When Corbin struck out A.J. Pollock, it was the outfielder’s ninth strikeout in his first 11 NLDS at-bats.
The Dodgers’ win expectancy dropped to 30.3 percent.
2) David Freese
The situation: Runner on first, two outs, Dodgers trail, 2-1
The outcome: Single to right field
Dodgers' win expectancy before/after: 30.3 percent/34.6 percent
No team is built as well as the Dodgers for an inning like the one that would unfold. For the second straight game, left-handed-hitting rookie Gavin Lux started at second base for L.A., but after Scherzer surprised the Dodgers with his relief appearance in Game 2, Dave Roberts and Co. were prepared for Corbin to come out of the bullpen in Game 3. Freese, 36 years old and playing in the 14th postseason series of his career, was the first of the righty bench bats to emerge. He punched a soft single through an opening on the right side of the infield to keep the inning alive.
“I wasn’t [trying to go that way with it]”, Freese said. “I’m just trying to find a ‘miss’. If he misses, I probably hit it better, but with that hole, it snuck through.”
Freese wasn’t done. He remained in the game and became the first player in almost 60 years to come off the bench and collect at least three hits in a postseason contest. The last to do it was catcher Johnny Blanchard of the 1960 Yankees in Game 6 of the World Series.
3) Russell Martin
The situation: First and third, two outs, Dodgers trail, 2-1
The outcome: Two-run double to left-center
Dodgers' win expectancy before/after: 34.6 percent/63.4 percent
Martin, also 36 and playing in the postseason for the first time since going 3-for-33 for the 2016 Blue Jays, was getting his first action in the series as the batterymate for Dodgers starter Hyun-Jun Ryu. Martin came back from down 0-2 in the count to pull even at 2-2 and hit Corbin’s signature pitch -- a slider down below the zone -- for a go-ahead, two-run double and a 3-2 Dodgers lead. It was part of a huge night; Martin added a two-run homer in the ninth for four RBIs.
“I just remember in the back of my mind, we had a meeting and we went over Corbin,” Martin said. “And with two strikes and guys in scoring position he doesn't really throw many strikes. He's going to try and make you chase a little bit. And the more pitches I saw, the more I felt comfortable. I had some pretty easy takes, got back in the count, and then he just left a breaking ball a little bit up.”
4) Enrique Hernández
The situation: First and second, two outs, Dodgers lead, 3-2
The outcome: Two-run double to left
Dodgers’ win expectancy before/after: 64.3 percent/84.6 percent
The Dodgers kept sending right-handed bats to home plate as long as Nationals manager Dave Martinez stuck with Corbin. Taylor followed Martin’s go-ahead double by taking a pinch-hit walk. Then Hernández pinch-hit for Joc Pederson and delivered another two-run double to make it 5-2.
Again, it was on Corbin’s signature slider. But unlike Martin, who went down and lifted a low pitch, Hernández got one right down the middle and punished Corbin, who misfired with his 35th pitch of the inning, three days after a 107-pitch performance in Game 1.
“We were able to put up some incredible ABs,” Hernández said. “It was about passing on the baton, nobody do too much or be a hero. We chased a lot of his sliders in the dirt in L.A., and tonight it was about being stubborn in the approach, hit whatever’s over the plate and not expand down. Trying to see the ball a little bit deeper. We did a great job. Russell was huge, down in the count 0-2, staying positive.”
5) Justin Turner
The situation: First and second, two outs, Dodgers lead, 5-2
The outcome: Three-run homer to left
Dodgers' win expectancy before and after: 85 percent/96.5 percent
Martinez finally made the move to Suero, but he missed with a cutter and Turner, who missed a chunk of the regular season’s final month with ankle and back injuries, hammered it for his first home run since Sept. 3.
The Dodgers had an 8-2 lead, and the Nationals never got closer than four runs the rest of the night.
“It was quality at-bat after quality at-bat, and next thing we know there's seven runs on the board,” Turner said. “Offense is definitely contagious, and I think we all caught it that inning.”