WASHINGTON -- The Nationals and Dodgers are headed to a Game 5 of the National League Division Series, and if that sounds familiar, it’s because these teams have been here before.
On Oct. 13, 2016, they met at Nationals Park and played a four-hour, 32-minute epic that Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts calls the favorite game of his managerial career. That Roberts’ memory is a fond one gives away the outcome -- a 4-3 Los Angeles win that turned with the Dodgers’ four-run seventh-inning rally against Max Scherzer & Co., and ended with a Clayton Kershaw save on one day of rest. There were so many twists and turns that then-L.A. first baseman Adrián González declared it, "One of the best games in history.”
No one argued with him that night.
“I think if I had to pick one game of managing in my brief time, that's probably it, No. 1,” Roberts said on Monday, when he was back at Nationals Park in the hours before Washington’s 6-1 win forced another deciding fifth game. “It was my first time with all hands on deck and your star pitcher coming and saying, ‘I want to pitch out of the pen.’
“That game was crazy. Kenley [Jansen] going two-plus, giving the ball from Kenley to Clayton -- that was crazy.”
Count Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon among those thankful for a chance to make new Game 5 memories against the Dodgers when Stephen Strasburg matches up against Walker Buehler on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium.
Rendon would rather not revisit 2016.
“That's in the past,” Rendon said last week when a reporter conjured the memory. “You think about your girlfriend that broke up with you, like, 20 years ago?
“Probably not. So, no.”
With apologies to Mr. Rendon, let’s take a trip down memory lane via MLB.com’s coverage from that night.
For six innings, Danny Espinosa’s one-out RBI single off Dodgers starter Rich Hill in the second inning represented the game’s only run. Hill started on short rest, having gotten the loss in Game 2, and he combined with Joe Blanton and eventual winning pitcher Julio Urías to duel with Scherzer in a 1-0 game through the end of the sixth, when Nationals third-base coach Bobby Henley made a costly send that ended a Washington rally. Ryan Zimmerman had roped a two-out double into the left-field corner with Jayson Werth at first base, and Werth was waved home. Left fielder Andrew Toles relayed to shortstop Corey Seager, who threw home to retire Werth with plenty of room to spare.
“You've got to make them make two good throws,” Werth said. “We've been aggressive ever since I've been here on that play. You live and die by those moments sometimes."
This time, it would be the latter.
"As we came off the field after that,” said Dodgers infielder Justin Turner, “Adrian said, 'We're going to make them pay.’”
Pederson to left and deep
That’s precisely what the Dodgers did. Scherzer, the NL Cy Young Award winner that season, had scattered four singles through six scoreless innings and started the seventh by executing just the down-and-away fastball he wanted to Joc Pederson. But Pederson hit it the opposite way to the seats for a 1-1 tie, knocking Scherzer from the game and sparking a four-run rally in an inning that saw Washington call for five relievers. Veteran Carlos Ruiz provided a lead with an RBI single and Turner padded it with a two-run triple.
It started with Pederson.
"We've never seen him hit the ball out in left field since we've played him," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said.
Nationals fight back
Washington didn't quit. Former Dodger Chris Heisey's pinch-hit home run off a Grant Dayton 0-2 pitch turned a 4-1 Nationals deficit into a 4-3 one after the seventh-inning stretch. That made Roberts go way out of the box to his closer Jansen, who’d been an NL All-Star that year and logged a career-best 47 saves. This was that postseason, the Andrew Miller postseason, the one in which Miller’s Indians, Joe Maddon’s Cubs and Roberts’ Dodgers more than ever relied on data to make decisions about reliever usage and where to deploy pinch-hitters. It was when we started hearing about platoon advantage. Jansen had not pitched as early as the seventh inning since 2013, but he ultimately threw a career-high 51 pitches to get seven of the nine outs Los Angeles needed to get past the Nats.
"You know they were doing everything they could to close that game out, including bringing Jansen in in the seventh," Baker said. "You know, I wish they would have brought somebody else in, but they brought in one of their horses."
Roberts was about to call upon another.
Kershaw for the save
"Funny thing was,” said Jansen, “when I was in the tunnel [in the top of the ninth inning] watching on TV and I saw Kersh warming up, and I'm like, ‘Wait a minute, am I dreaming? Is this true? Kersh is warming up?’ So then I had to ask, 'Do I still have the ninth?' And they said, ‘The ninth is still your inning.’ I went out there and Kersh gave me that boost, gave me that fighting spirit, just knowing he had my back."
Jansen struck out Trea Turner to open the ninth inning, but then he walked Bryce Harper and Werth. With Jansen’s pitch count over 50, Roberts called upon Kershaw, two days after Kershaw had thrown 110 pitches in the Dodgers’ hard-fought Game 4 win in L.A.
It was a sentimental handoff. Jansen was Kershaw's catcher in Kershaw's only Minor League save a decade earlier in 2006 -- against none other than the Gulf Coast Nationals.
Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop out and struck out Wilmer Difo to seal the victory. Kershaw stood on the mound with his arms extended in the air as the out was recorded at first, and the Dodgers emptied the dugout to celebrate their date with the Cubs in the NL Championship Series.
"Kenley did more than he's ever done in his career,” Kershaw said. “I just wanted to have his back."
“I remember I stayed ready the whole game, because I knew usually in those kind of games, they use the whole bench,” said Difo on Monday through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “In that situation, it did turn out that I was the last bench player and last hitter of the game. So I knew at some point I was going to go in. So when I went in, I was ready and prepared and expecting to face whoever -- obviously, it turned out to be Kershaw.”
How surprised was he?
“We were definitely surprised, because he's a starter and hadn't relieved and especially not closed,” Difo said.
This time, it will be Scherzer on two days’ rest after throwing 109 pitches in Game 4. He was actually asked Monday about the possibility of pulling a Kershaw and surprising the Dodgers in Game 5.
“I doubt it,” Scherzer said to laughter.
“I mean, my arm is hanging right now,” Scherzer said. “That pushed me all the way to the edge and then some. So, yeah, I can't imagine any scenario where I'm pitching.”
Here they go again. The Nationals and Dodgers in a decisive NLDS Game 5.
“Game 5, win or go home. Buehler-Strasburg,” Roberts said “There's going to be 45,000 fans there. As a fan, as a player, you live for moments like this.”