LOS ANGELES -- The stage has been set for a win-or-go-home National League Division Series battle between the Nationals and Dodgers on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.
The Nationals fended off elimination with a 6-1 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 on Monday night at Nationals Park, sending the series back to Southern California for a decisive Game 5.
Here are three factors that will determine which team earns a spot in the NL Championship Series presented by GEICO:
1. The pitchers’ duel
Before the start of the series, Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler said he thought this could be an “old school” type of clash given the star power of each club’s starting rotation. Buehler’s description feels particularly prescient now, as he is slated to start opposite Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg in a marquee pitching matchup that will provide a fitting end to this NLDS.
Buehler has been here before, helping to save the Dodgers’ season twice last year by starting Game 163 and Game 7 of the NLCS. The 25-year-old overmatched the Nationals in the Dodgers’ 6-0 victory in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, firing six scoreless innings while allowing only one hit. The Dodgers lined up their rotation to ensure that Buehler would have the opportunity to pitch in a decisive Game 5. He’ll have that chance to reward their faith yet again on Wednesday.
Strasburg, meanwhile, can match Buehler in both talent and unflappability. Pitching on short rest, Strasburg delivered a dominant performance in Washington’s 4-2 win in Game 2, striking out 10 over six innings of one-run ball. Few pitchers have a postseason track record as impressive as Strasburg’s, who has logged a minuscule 0.64 ERA over 28 career innings.
“I think it's something that you train for, you dream about as a kid,” Strasburg said. “You want to have those opportunities to just see how your stuff stacks up. When you're in the moment and stuff, it's a great feeling, just going out there and competing against the best.”
2. The battle of the bullpens
The Nationals and Dodgers will look to ride their starters as deep into the game as possible before turning it over to their bullpens, which were on the opposite ends of the spectrum during the regular season. Dodgers relievers tied for the NL lead with a 3.85 ERA, while Nationals relievers ranked last with a 5.68 ERA. But the nature of this short series has allowed Washington to hide its combustible bullpen by aggressively deploying its starters in relief. The strategy backfired on Sunday, however, as Patrick Corbin couldn’t hold a one-run lead after relieving Aníbal Sánchez in the sixth inning of their 10-4 loss in Game 3.
It will be all hands on deck for the Dodgers, who will have Clayton Kershaw ready to follow Buehler in relief if needed. The tactic worked in the 2016 NLDS between these two clubs, as Kershaw came out of the bullpen on one day of rest and converted the save to secure an epic 4-3 win for the Dodgers in Game 5.
3. Flipping the October script
Both clubs have experienced their share of postseason heartbreak in recent years and will be aiming to overcome the weight of the past on Wednesday. After back-to-back World Series losses, the Dodgers were favored to make a third consecutive trip to the Fall Classic this year after winning a franchise-record 106 games during the regular season. But none of that will matter if they can’t advance past the first round, a feeling the Nationals know all too well.
Washington has lost each of its three previous NLDS Game 5s, often in painful fashion, and will aim to secure its first NLCS berth. The Nationals have already overcome plenty of adversity throughout the season, stoking optimism that they’ll finally be able to get over the hump this year.
“No team wants to win this game more, regardless of history,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We both have had really good years and put ourselves in this situation, so I honestly don't think that given our past we feel any more pressure than they do to win a Game 5. It's a must-win for both teams.”