With three swings of the bat, the Dodgers erased the Nationals’ home-field advantage in the NLDS. Stud shortstop and presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager took the first pitch he saw over the centerfield wall, and his double-play partner Chase Utley drove in a run with a single to right in the third. Once third baseman Justin Turner homered to left with Seager on first two batters later, ace Clayton Kershaw had all the run support he needed. Washington clawed back with two runs in the third and another in the fourth, but the bullpens—including Los Angeles closer Kenley Jansen, who got five outs—kept it at all zeroes from then on, and the Dodgers grabbed Game 1, 4–3.
“Pitching and defense win championships,” the adage goes. So far in the 2016 postseason, though, it has not won too many games. The list of aces who haven’t made it past the sixth inning comprises the Rangers’ Cole Hamels (seven runs in 3 1/3) and Yu Darvish (five in five), the Red Sox’ Rick Porcello (five in 4 1/3) and David Price (five in 3 1/3) and the Indians’ Trevor Bauer (three in 4 1/3). That group now also includes Dodgers No. 1 starter and the best pitcher in baseball, lefty Kershaw, and his Nationals counterpart, righty Max Scherzer.
Kershaw only walked one batter, but he struggled with his command all night, at one point going to a 2–0 count on Scherzer with two outs and the bases loaded, and it seemed like Los Angeles had gotten away with something when Kershaw departed after five innings and 101 pitches having only given up three runs. Scherzer, on the other hand, gave up two home runs in the first three innings but settled down as the night wore on and retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced, but he left with Washington down 4–3 after six.
The drumbeat as the NLDS neared was that the Dodgers needed to be careful of the Nats’ fleet-footed centerfielder, Trea Turner. The 23-year-old’s 33 steals in 73 games this season are the most by a player so young in so few games in history, and he augments his speed with surprising pop; he slugged .567 this year. And it was true that in Game 1 Washington took chances whenever it could, forcing an error, stealing twice in three attempts and taking the extra base on an out three times. But Turner was a spectator for all that running, going 0 for 3 with a walk and a sacrifice fly.
Just about everyone else got in on the action, though: Catcher Pedro Severino reached on an error by second baseman Chase Utley in the second, leftfielder Jayson Werth swiped second and rightfielder Bryce Harper third on a third-inning double steal, second baseman Daniel Murphy was gunned down at second in the seventh and Severino (twice) and Werth all advanced on outs. The moral of this story: It’s not just Turner Los Angeles should keep an eye on.
Give these offenses credit for making something happen against Nos. 1 and 2 in the National League in pitchers’ WAR (Scherzer had 6.2, Kershaw 5.6), but both rotations drop off quickly past this point. The Dodgers’ Game 2 starter, lefthander Rich Hill, has a 2.00 ERA over his past 24 starts, but he is 36 and missed June with a strained groin and another six weeks with blister problems. The Nationals’ choice for second starter was something of a war of attrition: Stud righty Stephen Strasburg will not return from elbow soreness until at least a possible NLCS appearance, and lefty Gio Gonzalez had a 7.43 ERA in his last five starts of the regular season. So it will be Tanner Roark, whose ERA (2.83) outperformed his FIP (3.79) by nearly a run, suggesting that at least some of his success was due to luck and help from his fielders.