Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the Dodgers and Nationals was one for the ages. Operas have been written about less. On paper, it looked like a mismatch: a $30 million-a-year starter coming off a Cy Young-caliber season taking the ball at home for the deciding game of a series opposite Johnny Wholestaff, with a $30.7 million starter coming back on one day of rest to fill as closer after his manager had said “absolutely not” to the question as to whether he was even available. In the end, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was rewarded for his bold, outside-the-box thinking as his team eked out a thrilling 4–3 victory over the Nationals to advance to the NLCS for the second time in four years.
Here are a few not-so-quick thoughts about a fascinating game that is bound to be dissected for years to come.
All Hands on Deck
We’ll get to Nationals starter Max Scherzer, who pitched brilliantly, in a moment, but first, consider the Dodgers. Roberts made the bold call to turn to Clayton Kershaw on three days of rest for Game 4 on Tuesday, but in using him for 110 pitches, may have gone a bridge too far, as once again, his valiant effort was undone by his bullpen—though the Dodgers recovered to win and fight another day. That decision left Roberts with a Game 5 choice of either fragile Rich Hill on three days of rest or 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias, more than 50 innings after making his first appearance in two weeks.
Roberts chose Hill, but knew better than to push him too far, particularly after he took a one-hop grounder off the left wrist from leadoff batter Trea Turner. Hill went just 2 ⅔ innings, striking out six while allowing five baserunners. The Nationals scored the game’s first run off of him in the second inning via a Daniel Murphy single, a one-out stolen base, a Ryan Zimmerman walk and then a Danny Espinosa single. Hill was in trouble again in the third, with Turner singling, stealing second base and then taking third on Bryce Harper’s fly ball. He departed after striking out Jayson Werth and issuing an intentional walk to the red-hot Murphy.
Righty Joe Blanton, normally the Dodgers’ eighth-inning setup man, came on in the third to face Anthony Rendon, a matchup Roberts clearly wanted. He got Rendon to line out to centerfield, preserving the deficit at 1–0, and then worked a scoreless fourth before giving way to Urias, whom Roberts wanted to make sure entered at the start of an inning. The kid pitched two scoreless frames, with a two-out walk of Harper in the fifth the lone blemish, before yielding to a pinch-hitter in the top of a wild seventh inning during which the Dodgers scored four runs and the Nationals changed pitchers FIVE times—all over the course of an hour and six minutes.
Roberts turned to another rookie lefty, Grant Dayton to start the bottom of the seventh, but plans quickly went awry, as the 4–1 lead was trimmed to 4–3 via Danny Espinosa’s walk and then lefty-masher Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit two-run homer.
After Dayton yielded a single to pinch-hitter Clint Robinson, the Dodgers’ first-year manager made one of the boldest moves in recent managerial history, a throwback to the 1970s when the game’s star relievers weren’t locked into ninth-inning roles, and were instead firemen called upon as the situation dictated in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning and worked multiple frames: he called upon Kenley Jansen, who would need to get nine outs to record a save.
Expecting that, for a pitcher who had never pitched more than two full innings, appeared to be a pipe dream, and for a short time, it appeared that Jansen might not get out of one; he yielded a single to Harper that sent Joe Ross, pinch-running for Robinson, to third base, and after Harper stole second—a mistake, as it took the bat out of Murphy’s hands—issued the obligatory intentional walk to load the bases.
Sabermetricians are fond of a metric called leverage index, which takes into account the score margin, inning, bases occupied, and number of outs and in one number expresses the effect that particular batter-pitcher encounter has on the game, with 1.0 as average; a 2.0 leverage index tells you that this particular situation has twice the impact on winning and losing as the average situation. For Jansen, by the time he walked Murphy with two outs, the leverage index was up to 6.24 according to FanGraphs.
He got out of it by striking out Rendon swinging at a 95 mph cutter, finishing the inning at 17 pitches. After working around a leadoff walk of Stephen Drew in the eighth, he was up to 33, more than he had thrown in any game this season. He came out for the ninth inning, clearly running on fumes; meanwhile, Kershaw had gone out to the bullpen between innings, preparing for what would be his first relief appearance since the 2009 NLCS.
While Jansen struck out Trea Turner on a slider—one of six he threw all night to offset his go-to cutter—he walked both Harper (on four pitches) and Werth (on six pitches) running his pitch count to a career-high 51.
On came Kershaw—channeling Orel Hershiser in the 1988 NLCS, Randy Johnson in the 1995 ALDS and the 2001 World Series, Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 World Series, and so on, the stuff of which October legends are made—to face his nemesis, Murphy. Not only had the Nationals’ second sacker gone 7 for 15 with five walks in the series, he clubbed a pair of homers off the Dodgers ace in last year’s Division Series, as a member of the Mets. The leverage index for this encounter reached 7.13, the highest of the night.
Kershaw got squeezed on a 93 mph fastball, high and on the inside corner of the plate, for ball one. He threw a nearly identical pitch—and Murphy popped it up to second base for the second out. The three-time Cy Young winner then carved up pinch-hitter Wilmer Difo, a rookie with just 78 pitches under his belt. Difo struck out on a curveball in the dirt, with catcher Carlos Ruiz throwing to first base for the clinching out:
The Dodgers will face the Cubs in the NLCS starting on Saturday. Don’t ask about the rotation.
Hard Luck Scherzer
For 98 pitches, Scherzer, the $30 million man, was brilliant. He held the Dodgers hitless through the first four frames, baffling them with a combination of an amped-up fastball and a wicked changeup. After working out of a bases-loaded, one out jam, he held them scoreless through six, striking out seven while walking just two.
But on Scherzer’s 99th pitch, his first of the seventh inning, he left a 95 mph fastball on the outside corner of the plate, and Joc Pederson drilled it into the Dodgers bullpen in left-centerfield.
The Dodgers dugout erupted, with players high-fiving so violently that it looked as though a brawl had broken out. The Nationals ace trudged off the mound, his night done. Manager Dusty Baker had gotten to this point in the series with an uncharacteristically quick hook, milking just 17⅓ innings from his starters—11⅓ from those not named Scherzer—and using a trio of lefty relievers to combat the Dodgers’ Achilles heel.
The debate will rage as to whether Baker, who was battling to avoid losing his ninth straight postseason elimination game, was too quick in pulling his ace, who worked at least seven innings in 20 of his 34 starts this year. For Scherzer, who in three previous elimination games as a Tiger—Game 6 of the 2011 ALCS against the Rangers, Game 4 of the 2012 World Series against the Giants, and Game 6 of the 2013 ALCS against the Red Sox—had been roughed up for 12 runs in 15 innings, taking the loss all three times, the Pederson homer was a crushing blow, and the hook from Baker closed the door on a chance for vindication.
Adding insult to injury, Werth had been thrown out—out by a country mile—trying to score on Zimmerman’s two-out double into the leftfield corner to end the sixth. Leftfielder Andrew Toles and Seager teamed up for a perfect relay to the plate; Grandal intercepted Werth before he could even start his slide.
For as strong as Scherzer had been, the numbers suggested that his night had been undone by Justin Turner’s 13-pitch walk with two outs in the fourth. Scherzer had a massive platoon split this year, smothering righties for a .477 OPS while getting raked for a .757 OPS by lefties. Yet the lineup’s sole righty, Turner, had inflicted the most damage on the 32-year-old righty in Game 1 via a three-run homer. Here, the effect was more subtle: the Dodgers were 0 for 10 with a walk prior to Turner’s epic plate appearance, as Scherzer cruised through the first three innings on just 37 pitches. He had to dig deep to strike out Chase Utley and Corey Seager, using 13 pitches between the two, and Turner’s battle helped extend his pitch count to 30 for the inning. From the Turner PA onward, the Dodgers went 5 for 12 against Scherzer.
Three of those hits came in the fifth inning, as Josh Reddick and Pederson started the action with back-to-back singles. After Yasmani Grandal struck out swinging at a curveball, Andrew Toles blooped a single just over Murphy’s head to load the bases. Scherzer recovered, however, whiffing pinch-hitter Andre Ethier with a changeup (the finishing pitch on five of his seven strikeouts) and induced Chase Utley to ground out to shortstop. To that point, the Dodgers were 0 for 9 with the bases loaded in this series, and 5 for 29 with runners in scoring position.
The Wild Seventh
Once Pederson homered, Baker went to the first of his three lefty relievers, Marc Rzepczynski, and the game of slow-motion chess between the two managers—with seemingly every move separated by a two-minute commercial break—began. Rzepczynski walked struggling Yasmani Grandal on four pitches. Then righty Blake Treinin yielded a single to pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick, batting for Toles, sending Grandal to second, where he was lifted for pinch-runner Austin Barnes. Charlie Culberson, pinch-hitting for Urias, tried to bunt both runners over but failed miserably, bunting foul for strikes two and three. One out.
On came lefty Sammy Solis, whom Roberts countered with Carlos Ruiz, who had pinch-homered in Game 3. In the mini-2008–09 Phillies reunion-within-the-reunion, Ruiz was pinch-hitting for Utley. He singled, scoring Barnes and giving the Dodgers the lead. After Seager flew out, righty Shawn Kelley came on to face Justin Turner, who clubbed a low-and-away slider over the head of Trea Turner and off the centerfield wall 402 feet away. Both runners scored, and Turner reached third with a triple.
Not to be outdone by former teammate Murphy, Turner hit .400/.619/.733 with five RBIs for the series, and kept alive a 10-game streak of reaching base at least twice in a postseason game; only six players have sustained such a streak for longer, led by Manny Ramirez’s 13.
Oliver Perez, the Nationals’ sixth pitcher of the inning, would come on to retire Adrian Gonzalez on a grounder, and things would get even crazier the rest of the way, but the Dodgers had all the runs they would need to oust the Nationals from their third Division Series in five seasons and return to the NLCS.