SOMEWHERE OVER IOWA — First pitch of Game 5 of the NLDS is scheduled for 5:37 p.m. Los Angeles time, which is fitting, because some time in the second or third inning, we should get to watch the sun set.
Baseball’s youth movement is real. This past year’s All-Star Game was one of the youngest ever, with 19 players under 26 years old and 10 under 25. This season, for the first time since 1909, seven players 22 and younger produced 4-WAR seasons. The Dodgers’ roster boasts four rookies; the Nationals’ starting outfield includes a 22-year-old and a 21-year-old. And yet the players who have had the greatest impact in this series so far can’t figure out how to turn off the flashlights on their iPhones.
In the Dodgers’ Game 1 win, 29-year-old Max Muncy was involved in four of L.A.’s six runs. Thirty-six-year-old Howie Kendrick drove in the first run of the Nats’ Game 2 victory in support of 31-year-old Stephen Strasburg, who was opposed by 31-year-old Clayton Kershaw. Aníbal Sánchez, 35, held the Dodgers to one run in Game 3; Russell Martin, 36, hit the double that would provide the margin of victory in L.A.’s eventual win. Thirty-four-year-old Justin Turner later provided cushion with a home run. And in Game 4, D.C.’s 35-year-old Max Scherzer gutted through seven innings and 35-year-old Ryan Zimmerman hit a three-run homer to force a cross-country flight. The Dodgers’ rookies have hit .217. The Nationals’ kids have hit .211.
“We’re a bunch of viejos,” Scherzer said after the game. “We’re old guys. Old guys can still do it.”
They can. But for how long? The question of time will be the central theme of Game 5, and not just because L.A. manager Dave Roberts has said that Pedro Báez is available to pitch. The Dodgers have appeared in each of the last seven postseasons, the Nationals in five of the last eight. Neither has won a World Series. Each team boasts a few stud young players, but the cores are, well, viejo. How long can their windows of contention stay open?
Time: You always think there will be more of it. The Nationals surely thought so when they shut down Strasburg, a year removed from Tommy John surgery, in September 2012. They lost that NLDS 3–2 to the Cardinals. The Dodgers must have thought so when, at last year’s trade deadline, they acquired shortstop Manny Machado but failed to address their leaky bullpen. They lost the World Series 4–1 as relievers allowed 14 runs in 23 innings.
So much is at stake in this Game 5. The Nats’ wild-card game win on Thursday marked the first time men wearing the curly W had poured champagne on one another in October. In 15 seasons in the nation’s capital, this organization has never won a postseason series. Their previous three NLDS Game 5s ended in heartbreaking fashion: a four-run Cardinals rally in the top of the ninth in 2012; Kershaw, on short rest, closed them out in ’16; an eighth-inning pickoff with a man on second to extinguish a rally in ’17. Franchise icon Bryce Harper departed in the offseason, lured by $330 million and the promise of winning to the rival Phillies. This was supposed to be a down year in D.C. Instead the team is here, with a chance to change the narrative. Will Wednesday be the day they finally reach the second round?
The Dodgers reach this postseason fresh off two straight World Series losses. A third straight World Series defeat would be the worst possible outcome, except for a first-round exit. L.A. won a franchise-record 106 games this year. The players have already begun referring to themselves as the best Dodgers team of all time. Will they move closer to ending a 31-year drought?
Strasburg will take the ball for Washington. He was perhaps the most hyped prospect of all time; then a combination of injuries and the laws of physics left him simply a good pitcher. Some fans saw a bust. But he took a no-hitter into the fifth inning of Game 2. He now has a 0.64 ERA in five career postseason appearances. Will this be the year he proves he is the stud scouts believed he would be?
Kershaw will be the first man out of the bullpen for Los Angeles. That he does not entirely deserve his reputation as a man who cannot pitch in the playoffs matters less than the fact that it exists. He has lost five m.p.h. on his four-seamer and some of the depth on his slider. Will he be able to use the weapons he has left to erase the only blemish on his Hall of Fame plaque?
We will see, starting at 5:37. The clock is ticking.