LOS ANGELES -- When did this National League Division Series become a battle of the bullpens?
Actually, it was in the middle of the first game. And 2 1/2 games later, it hasn't changed a bit.
The Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers are relying on their relievers to be the difference-makers in this series. The Nationals won the battle of the bullpens Monday in Game 3, an 8-3 victory at Dodger Stadium to take a 2-1 series lead with an eye on advancing to the NLCS in Tuesday's Game 4 (5 or 8 p.m. ET/2 or 5 p.m. PT on FS1).
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The work of the bullpens has been essential for both clubs, particularly the Nationals, whose bullpen has not given up an earned run in 12 1/3 innings over the three games. The Washington relievers worked 4 2/3 shutout innings in Game 3, holding onto a 4-3 lead until their offense exploded for four runs in the top of the ninth.
On the other hand, the more heralded starters have not lived up to their advance billing. The big guys -- Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw -- came up short in the opener.
Scherzer gave up two homers and four runs over six innings, although he has been the only starter to go six. Kershaw picked up the victory in the opener, but he gave up three runs in five innings, and needed an untidy 101 pitches to get that far.
In the first three games of the series, the cumulative starters' ERA for the two clubs has been 6.67.
Monday, the Dodgers' usually consistent Kenta Maeda struggled, exiting after just three innings, having given up four runs. Gio Gonzalez, who had a tough regular season for the Nationals, worked into the fifth with a 4-1 lead, but was removed after surrendering a two-run homer to backup catcher Carlos Ruiz, who was pinch-hitting for Maeda.
From that point, the Nats' bullpen pitched a shutout. The Dodgers' bullpen was pitching a shutout, too, until the top of the ninth, when, trailing, 4-3, Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen gave up a leadoff home to Jayson Werth and two walks before Ryan Zimmerman hit a drive to the right-field wall off the glove of a leaping Josh Reddick. Two runs scored and for the first time all day, the game was no longer seriously in doubt.
Lefty Sammy Solís gave the Nats a lift with 1 2/3 shutout innings following Gonzalez. Shawn Kelley was superb in the seventh and through the eighth pitching a perfect 1 2/3 innings with three strikeouts. Closer Mark Melancon pitched a spotless ninth in what was no longer a save situation.
"The bullpen was awesome," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "You know, all the guys contributed. Sammy Solis got the win, but he did an outstanding job. What a job that Kelley did for us. I mean, he went through the heart of the order and that's the best we've seen him in a while, but he was well rested. I don't think he pitched in seven or eight days, and you know, he was our most rested pitcher in the bullpen. I tell you, he got some outstanding hitters out today."
Baker, who once had a managerial reputation for staying with his starters too long, is now showing no reluctance to go to the bullpen as early and often as necessary. This bullpen is getting no shortage of work and is thriving with it, even while losing a travel day to a rainout.
"You have to try to win these games, and the guys, nobody's complaining," Baker said. "We check on the health of the bullpen every day. And you know, this team [the Dodgers] can hit the ball out of the ballpark. The Dodgers can hit the ball; they live by the home run almost.
"Yeah, you've got to go to the bullpen and hope that the matchups work. They don't always work, but you've just got to take your chances and figure the odds of whoever you're bringing in."
The Dodgers weren't sparing any pitching moves themselves in Game 3. Manager Dave Roberts used every reliever on his active roster. They all worked out until the Nats got to Jansen in the ninth.
With the Dodgers on the brink of elimination and the Nationals on the verge of winning their first postseason series since moving to Washington in 2005, the fair expectation is that these two bullpens will, sooner or later, occupy center stage again.