WASHINGTON, D.C. — As a 19-year-old third baseman for the Gulf Coast League Dodgers, Russell Martin dreamed about a moment like this: game, and maybe series, on the line, bat in his hands, two outs, 0–2 count. He rode smelly coach buses three hours from Vero Beach, Fla., to Fort Myers and Clearwater and he imagined it. He would come through.
“That’s such a long time ago,” he said after Game 3, after he keyed L.A.’s 10–4 victory, saved the season and kept that promise to himself. “I've always been an intense baseball player and just person in general, but I think now I just know how to take a deep breath.”
He needed one on Sunday night. He’s a catcher now, and a 36-year-old one, not that his teammates can quite keep track of his age. “Russ has been in what, 26 postseasons?” first baseman David Freese, who is two months younger, cracked after the game.
After eight years in the Los Angeles organization and five with the major league team, Martin reached free agency in 2010 and signed with the Yankees. Two years later he signed with the Pirates; two years after that, with the Blue Jays. Then, this January, Toronto traded him for two minor leaguers to the Dodgers, who were looking for a veteran to help share catching duties until phenom Will Smith was ready to take over.
Today Martin is a backup who forced his way into the lineup only because starter Hyun-Jin Ryu prefers him over Smith. But Ryu hadn’t pitched in eight days, so Martin hadn’t played in eight days.
In that time L.A. had won the first game of the NLDS and lost the second. The team had won a franchise-record 106 games this year and the players had begun calling themselves the best Dodgers club ever, but suddenly they found themselves in danger: a best-of-three on the road, with one game started by Stephen Strasburg, who had a 2.91 ERA in the second half, and another by Max Scherzer, who had a 2.92 ERA for the season. After two straight losses in the World Series, an NLDS exit to a wild-card team would be sharply painful.
On Sunday the Nationals started Aníbal Sánchez, a righty whose primary weapons are a pair of changeups and a 91-m.p.h. fastball. This was the Dodgers’ shot. Instead Sánchez held them to one run in five innings. With Washington up 2–1 and two lefties due to hit in the top of the sixth, manager Dave Martínez called upon lefthanded starter Patrick Corbin, who was pitching on two days’ rest after starting Game 1.
This was the right move by Martínez—the Nationals boast the worst bullpen in history to reach the postseason—and at first, it worked. Centerfielder Cody Bellinger singled, but shortstop Corey Seager struck out looking on a filthy four-seamer that just clipped the outside corner and leftfielder A.J. Pollock flailed helplessly at a slider for the second out.
But after Martínez used Scherzer in relief in Game 2, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts predicted that he might see Corbin in Game 3. So he constructed his lineup to facilitate what the Dodgers call their line change—L.A.’s seamless swap of right- and lefthanded hitters. Out came lefty second baseman Gavin Lux and in came the righthanded Freese. He singled through the shift. Bellinger dashed to third.
Martin stepped to the plate. Corbin pinpointed a slider, his best pitch, just above the bottom of the strike zone. Martin checked his swing. Got to see the slider, he thought. Corbin threw an almost identical one. Martin fouled it down the third-base line.
Game, and maybe series, on the line, bat in his hands, two outs, 0–2 count. He thought back to the hitters’ meeting in which the Dodgers had discussed Corbin. With two strikes, guys in scoring position, he doesn't really throw many strikes, Martin remembered. He's going to try and make you chase a little bit.
The next pitch was a slider in the dirt. Martin laid off. He began to get a sense for where that pitch started and where it finished. A four-seamer, high and inside. Martin laid off. He began to feel more comfortable. Another slider, in the same place as the first two, just below the zone. Martin swung.
In his career, he has slugged .142 on pitches in that area. This season, he has hit .220 with five doubles in 83 games, 20 Ryu starts and then occasional other outings to keep him fresh. Martin had three hits in his last 35 postseason at bats, including two strikeouts to start the night. He has served mostly as an extension of the coaching staff, shepherding Smith through the rigors of his first big league season. Long gone is the 25-year-old All Star who broke open each of Games 2 and 3 of the 2008 NLDS, in which the Dodgers swept the Cubs. Until Sunday, those games were the closest he had come to the moment he pictured.
He connected. The ball one-hopped the centerfield wall. The dugout exploded. Rightfielder Joc Pederson, third baseman Justin Turner and first baseman Max Muncy waved the runners home, just in case they missed the sign from third-base coach Dino Ebel.
The Dodgers led 3–2. They scored seven runs that inning. Martin homered in the ninth. They won the game. After it was over, they congratulated one another in the clubhouse and headed for the buses. Martin lingered. He had interviews to do, dinner to eat, clean clothes to put on, a moment to soak in. More than an hour after the game finished, he was the last one in the clubhouse. Finally he emerged and greeted his fiancée, Elisabeth Chicoine. And then that 19-year-old walked away, his hair a little grayer.