Nationals Exercise Past Playoff Demons, Advance To NLCS

Heading into Wednesday night the Washington Nationals were underdogs. Just like they were all season, they were doubted, they were counted out, they were left for dead. On May 24th the Nationals saw themselves sitting at 19-31, fourth in the NL East, and amid a storm of angry fans demanding the firing of 2nd-year manager Dave Martinez. However, even with that start, General Manager Mike Rizzo came to the decision that they weren’t going to give up on Martinez and the team. That decision proved to be the best one ever made in Washington Nationals history. 

In a win or go home Game Five against arguably the best team in all of baseball, the Nationals, on the road, decided to trot out seasoned veteran Stephen Strasburg to the mound to face off against second-year righty Walker Buehler. The game started out rough for the Nationals as Joc Pederson roped a line drive to left that went through the bullpen door for a ground-rule double. Max Muncy followed right behind Peterson, and on a 3-1 count, he launched a Strasburg fastball to deep right-center. And just like that, after two batters, the Dodgers were up 2-0. Strasburg would get out of the jam via a double play but just an inning later Dodgers left fielder Kike Hernandez blasted one to center field to give the Dodgers and Walker Buehler a 3-0 cushion. Luckily for Dave Martinez and the Nationals, Stephen Strasburg settled down for the next 4 innings to keep the deficit where it was at. After a Juan Soto RBI single in the 6th and solid contributions from Tanner Rainey and Patrick Corbin out of the pen the game headed into the 8th with the score still knotted at 3-1. Just the previous inning Dodgers manager had decided to yank Buehler for lefty Clayton Kershaw who came in with runners on first and second and two outs and proceeded to strike out Adam Eaton. Kershaw, who is notorious for failing in the postseason was trusted to finish off the last two innings of the game to send the Dodgers to the NLCS. On the second pitch he threw in the 8th, MVP candidate Anthony Rendon launched a four-seam fastball over the left-field wall to draw the Nats to within one. They didn’t stop there, on the next pitch left fielder Juan Soto rocketed an absolute moonshot halfway up the right-field bleachers to tie the game and take the air out of the 50,000 plus Dodgers fans in attendance. Soto was aware of Kershaws struggles heading into that at-bat, after the game saying “ I know he’s a little struggling in the postseason, I know he gave up one homer, so maybe he’s going to try to get on top of me, I just looked for one pitch, he missed it, and I get it.” Immediately after that Roberts decided enough was enough and pulled Kershaw for Kenta Maeda who would strike out the next three Nationals batters. Even with the two home runs, the game was still tied and the Dodgers had a chance to win the game in the bottom of the 9th. After a single by Kike Hernandez, facing Daniel Hudson, catcher Will Smith hit a ball to right, threw his bat in the air, the Dodgers dugout started jumping over the railing ready to celebrate, however, drifting back to the warning track Adam Eaton made the catch with his back against the wall. Nationals fans worldwide collectively took a deep breath as the Hudson navigated through the ninth to give his team a chance in the 10th. For the tenth, the Dodgers decided to stick with right Joe Kelly who, the previous inning, looked sharp striking out 2 batters. However, the 10th was a different story. After a leadoff walk to Eaton, Kelly got ahead of Rendon 0-2, but after numerous foul balls and a couple of good takes Rendon shot one over the head of left fielder Chris Taylor for a ground-rule double. Dave Roberts decided to intentionally walk Juan Soto, a questionable move considering he had lefty Adam Kolarek hot in the pen. Soto was 0-3 against Kolarek (2 SO, and a GO) in the series, yet Roberts decided to stick with his gut. What followed would haunt Dodger fans for years, with the bases loaded and no one out, 2B Howie Kendrick rocketed a ball to dead center field, looked back at his dugout, banged his chest, and screamed, knowing he had just hit a grand slam. The slam gave the Nats a comfortable 7-3 cushion and all they needed was 3 more outs from lefty Sean Doolittle to send them to their first NLCS in the team’s history(excluding Expos). So with two outs and a 1-1 count, Dodgers 3B Justin Turner lifted a shallow fly ball into center that was caught after a leaping catch from center fielder Michael A. Taylor. With that catch, the game ended, and so did the feeling of past playoff misery by the Washington Nationals and their fans.

Looking Ahead:

The Nationals will take on the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, the Cardinals narrowly escaped with miracle 9th inning of game 5 of the NLDS. The Nationals will look to rewrite history one more time Friday night at 8:07 PM.