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Who will win out? 3 keys to Nats-Dodgers NLDS

@zachsilver
October 6, 2019

WASHINGTON -- As the Dodgers left the ballpark Friday night, flummoxed by striking out 17 times, the Nationals returned to their hotels with heads held high, fully knowing just how crucial their series-tying Game 2 victory was in order to turn the National League Division Series into a best-of-three with

WASHINGTON -- As the Dodgers left the ballpark Friday night, flummoxed by striking out 17 times, the Nationals returned to their hotels with heads held high, fully knowing just how crucial their series-tying Game 2 victory was in order to turn the National League Division Series into a best-of-three with home-field advantage tipped in their favor.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 3 LAD 6, WSH 0 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 4 WSH 4, LAD 2 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 6 LAD 10, WSH 4 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 7 WSH 6, LAD 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 9 WSH 7, LAD 3 Watch

“It will be a good flight home,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said after Friday’s 4-2 win. “We'll have a day off tomorrow and then come back and do it again at home.”

With the next two games set for the nation’s capital, here are three matchups that could decide who earns a spot in the NL Championship Series:

1. Dodgers superstars vs. sluggish starts

If you were told that Cody Bellinger, A.J. Pollock and Corey Seager were a combined 1-for-22 with 13 strikeouts through the first two games of the series, what would you guess the standing in the series was?

The most alarming name on that list has to be Bellinger. The National League MVP Award candidate remains hitless this postseason, and though he’s drawn a pair of walks, his career postseason slashline now sits at .164/.227/.320 (.547 OPS) in 122 at-bats.

“I don't think fatigue's a part of it,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Friday night. “I think he's in a really good place, the way his body's moving. I think right now you're looking at two games, where [Thursday’s] game, I thought he took really good at-bats and had two good walks and obviously punched [out] twice. … I think he's seeing the baseball well. For me, it's too small of a sample.”

Then there’s Pollock, the $60 million man Los Angeles signed in the offseason for moments like this. Pollock’s slow start -- 0-for-8 with six strikeouts -- is all the more frustrating since it follows a hot September in which he posted an .852 OPS with four doubles and five homers.

And last is Seager, whom the Nationals have meticulously game-planned for. Though Seager owns the lone hit among the trio, he’s been stymied by an overwhelming amount of fastballs outside of the zone, where his numbers fall off dramatically. Before he struck out on an inside slider to end Game 2 with the bases loaded, Seager saw seven consecutive fastballs to the outside that set up the final pitch.

2. Dodgers lefties vs. Nationals lineup

The Nationals have prided themselves on being a team that balks at the idea of platooning, believing that their lefties are scrappy enough to grind out at-bats no matter who opposes them on the mound. The Dodgers, meanwhile, believe their southpaws are crafty enough to do the same regardless of who stands in the box.

Each will be put to the test in Games 3 and 4, when starters Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill will take the ball.

Sunday will be Ryu’s third go-around against Washington this season, and the results were mixed. His home start against them in May -- eight one-hit, scoreless innings -- was not just another moment in his brilliant first half but his top performance using the Game Score metric. However, Sunday’s outing will come at Nationals Park, where Ryu held Washington to one run on eight hits in July. It was one of the six times he allowed eight or more hits in a start this season.

And then there’s Adam Kolarek, whose sole responsibility this series seems to be getting out Juan Soto in big situations late. He’s done his job now twice.

The Nationals' lineup, for its part, owned the second-highest OBP (.356), fifth-highest OPS (.828), fifth-highest wOBA (.347) and seventh-highest wRC+ (111) against lefties during the regular season. What’s more, six of their eight postseason runs this year have come off southpaws, including three on Friday off Clayton Kershaw.

3. The Nationals vs. themselves

Washington entered the postseason knowing it would need to flip the script. On Friday, that manifested with Max Scherzer making a relief appearance during his scheduled bullpen day, catching the Dodgers off guard. And it also came when Martinez put the game on himself in the ninth inning, intentionally walking the potential tying run.

While heart rate monitors around the Washington metropolitan area may not agree, both moves paid off. The Nationals’ commitment to creativity has worked each time this postseason. The one time they tried to put together a traditional game -- when Patrick Corbin handed the ball off to his bullpen on Thursday -- blew up in a 6-0 Game 1 loss.

“Before the series started, before we even got to the playoffs, our game plan was to try to utilize these guys the best way possible without disrupting their starts,” Martinez said Friday night. “And we talked to all of them, and they have all been on board. So it's just part of it. When you get to these games, I've said this before, you're playing to win one game. Every day's crucial.”

Now the only question is how much the Nationals can withstand the abnormal. Utilizing Scherzer on Friday may have resulted in his next scheduled start getting pushed back, but Washington knows it’s going to need some creativity to knock off the 106-win Dodgers.

Zachary Silver is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Baltimore/Washington. Follow him on Twitter @zachsilver.