LOS ANGELES -- In his previous five October appearances, Stephen Strasburg made it look easy.
It wasn't so on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, but Strasburg still found a way through it and delivered a gutsy performance that gave the Nationals a chance to rally for a wild 7-3 victory over the Dodgers in 10 innings in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series
Strasburg proved vulnerable early, surrendering a pair of home runs to put the Nationals in a three-run hole, but he rebounded by getting through six innings without allowing further damage. He departed after throwing 105 pitches with Washington trailing, 3-1, and his offense picked him up with back-to-back home runs by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in the eighth and Howie Kendrick's game-winning grand slam in the 10th.
"He was phenomenal, and he did settle down," manager Dave Martinez said. "After that first inning, I saw a guy that just said, you know what, I'm just going to go out there and control the game, and did he that. He threw up four zeros for us and kept us in the game, and that's what we needed."
Strasburg now will have the opportunity to add to his postseason legacy against the Cardinals during the NL Championship Series, which is scheduled to begin on Friday night at St. Louis.
“It’s a great feeling," Strasburg said. "I don’t think we’re done. We’ve got such a great group of guys here, and we’re going to keep fighting. I’m just so happy and blessed to keep playing more games with these guys.”
Entering Wednesday, Strasburg had logged a minuscule 0.64 ERA over 28 innings in five playoff appearances, the lowest among pitchers with at least 25 postseason innings. He was brilliant for the Nationals in Game 2 against the Dodgers, striking out 10 over six innings of one-run ball to even the series at one game apiece.
But Strasburg looked off at the outset Wednesday, struggling to land his curveball for strikes and giving up hard contact on his fastball.
Joc Pederson led off the bottom of the first inning with a deep drive to left field that initially appeared to leave the ballpark but instead sailed through an opening in the bullpen fence for a ground-rule double. The next batter, Max Muncy, crushed a 3-1 fastball from Strasburg over the right-field fence for a 390-foot home run that gave the Dodgers a quick 2-0 lead.
It was the first postseason home run allowed by Strasburg. One inning later, he surrendered his second to Enrique Hernández, who hammered a misplaced fastball to center field to extend the Dodgers' lead to 3-0.
"The first couple innings, I didn’t hit my spot, and they made me pay for it," Strasburg said. "As a starter, you just kind of learn how you’ve got to trust your stuff, trust that it’s going to come to you. And it did.”
Strasburg didn't fold, developing a better feel for his curveball and changeup as his outing progressed. He held the Dodgers scoreless over the next two innings, presenting a bit of a dilemma for Martinez in the top of the fifth inning.
Martinez opted to stick with Strasburg and let him face Buehler rather than lift him for a pinch-hitter, a decision that sparked debate at the time. Strasburg squared up to bunt but could not advance the runners after striking out on a foul bunt. Buehler then struck out Trea Turner and coaxed a flyout from Adam Eaton to end the inning.
"We thought about it," Martinez said when asked if he had considered pinch-hitting for Strasburg in that situation. "But my thing was that he settled down, and he was pitching well. If he gets that bunt down, maybe we score a run or two. You don’t know. But we needed him to pitch a little longer to get through what I felt was going to be the deciding fact of how to use our bullpen. And it just worked out."
Indeed, Strasburg pitched two more innings after that plate appearance, finishing with three runs on six hits and one walk allowed and striking out seven. The next time his spot in the order came up, with a runner on first, one out in the seventh and the Nationals within two, Martinez chose to deploy Asdrúbal Cabrera as a pinch-hitter.
Cabrera struck out, but the Nationals took Strasburg off the hook for a loss in the next inning with the back-to-back homers off Clayton Kershaw that tied the game at 3. Kendrick supplied the series-winning runs with a grand slam off Joe Kelly in the 10th.
“We’ve been in that situation before many times,” Strasburg said. “My job is to keep it close, and they came through with some clutch hits.”