WASHINGTON -- As loud as Nationals Park was in the bottom of the eighth inning on Saturday night, it was difficult to blame the hometown fans for having some trepidation in the ninth.The sellout crowd had unleashed 16 innings worth of pent-up frustration during the five-run eighth, a frame highlighted
WASHINGTON -- As loud as Nationals Park was in the bottom of the eighth inning on Saturday night, it was difficult to blame the hometown fans for having some trepidation in the ninth.
The sellout crowd had unleashed 16 innings worth of pent-up frustration during the five-run eighth, a frame highlighted by Bryce Harper's game-tying rocket and Ryan Zimmerman's wall-scraper. The two homers gave the Nationals their final margin in a 6-3 win in Game 2 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile.
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But all it took was Addison Russell dunking a single into center field with one out in the ninth for an uneasy hush to come over the ballpark. The potential tying run was still at least two batters away, but the fans here had seen this movie before: Nightmare on South Capitol Street.
Unlike previous versions, this story had a happy ending for the Nats. Sean Doolittle got Benjamin Zobrist to ground into a game-ending double play three pitches later, allowing the 43,860 in attendance to exhale and celebrate the series-tying win.
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"Nothing better than to see him pump his fist there at the end," Harper said.
It hasn't always been that way. Drew Storen melted down in this ballpark against the Cardinals in the final inning of Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, then he blew a key save opportunity at home against the Giants in the 2014 NLDS. Last year, closer-in-training Blake Treinen gave up a big run in Game 4 against the Dodgers, while five different relievers combined to turn a 1-0 seventh-inning lead in Game 5 into a 4-1 deficit.
When the Nationals' bullpen got off to a dreadful start this season, it seemed as though history was preparing to repeat itself. Bullpen Blunders IV was in pre-production, though it wouldn't be complete until the gruesome ending could be filmed.
"We've had some problems in the past," said outfielder Jayson Werth, one of the handful of Nationals who have been here for the entire trilogy of first-round disappointments.
But just like the fourth installment of the Star Wars franchise, the Nats' fourth trip to the postseason suddenly has a working title: A New Hope.
During a 15-day period this past July, general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler in a pair of trades, adding three quality arms to a bullpen desperate for even one.
Since their arrival, the trio has restored order to the relief corps, joining Matt Albers (1.62 ERA in 63 appearances this season) to form a dependable back-end group.
"Those guys are really tough," Werth said. "Kudos to the organization for going out and making the trades. They've done everything that they needed to do; the rest is up to us."
When Dusty Baker pinch-hit for Giovany Gonzalez in the fifth inning in an attempt to breathe life into an otherwise lifeless lineup, Baker did so knowing he would need his bullpen to hold serve for four innings while the offense tried to right itself.
Albers, Sammy Solis, Madson and Oliver Perez did just that, combining for three scoreless innings to hold the Cubs' lead at 3-1.
"We can shorten the game, but like tonight, we can keep the game close," Werth said. "It's a huge weapon."
Harper and Zimmerman -- two more guys who have witnessed the nightmares of bullpens past -- launched their two clutch homers in the eighth, leaving the Nationals only three outs from sending the series back to Wrigley Field knotted up at one game apiece.
Those three outs belonged to Doolittle, the 31-year-old lefty who heard the familiar "Doooooooooooo!' chant on his way in from the bullpen.
Doolittle admitted the chant pumps him up, but extra adrenaline can work against a pitcher in big spots such as this one. With the middle of the Cubs' lineup due up in the ninth, he knew he needed to control his emotions, something he learned during eight postseason appearances with the A's between 2012-14.
"Having that kind of experience in the playoffs, that definitely helps," Doolittle said. "My job, I spend a lot of time in high-leverage, pressure situations. It's easy to feel like you're ready, to feel amped up and excited when you come out of that bullpen. The trick is, can you be focused enough and manage that energy enough to execute the way you want to execute."
Willson Contreras fouled off four good pitches during his at-bat, prompting Doolittle -- who had converted 21 straight save opportunities after joining the Nationals before blowing a fairly meaningless one in his final outing of the season -- to step off the mound a couple times to slow things down.
Doolittle was clearly calmer than Contreras, who swung at a head-high 96-mph fastball for the first out. Russell's single grinded the party to a halt like a bad record scratch, but Zobrist's double play started it up again, sending the Nationals on a happy flight to Chicago for Game 3 on Monday at Wrigley Field.
"I can't really speak to what's gone on before I got here in July -- years ago or at the beginning of this season," Doolittle said. "All I know is this group came together as a unit at the right time and came into the playoffs feeling really good about how we we're throwing the ball."
Is the Nationals' bullpen the final piece of the puzzle to lead them to their first series win? If Saturday night was the first true test for the group, they passed with flying colors.
"We're confident," Werth said, something he presumably hasn't always felt about his bullpen. "We like where we're at and we feel good about each other. Sometimes that's half the battle."
Mark Feinsand, executive reporter for MLB.com, has covered the Yankees and MLB since 2001 for the New York Daily News and MLB.com.