October 10, 2019
Maybe, just maybe, the Washington Nationals' bad habit of crushing disappointment in the postseason is behind them. And maybe being the underdogs this time worked to their advantage. Whereas they were favored to win in their four preceding appearances in the National League Divisional Series (2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017), this time the L.A. Dodgers were the heavy favorites. Just like in the National League Wild Card Game against the Milwaukee Brewers, fate finally smiled on the long-tortured Nats.
The game started off on an ominous note, as Stephen Strasburg gave up a two-run homer to Max Muncy before any outs had been recorded, and in the second inning Enrique Hernandez hit a lead-off homer to take a 3-0 lead. (That sentence is virtually identical to the one I wrote describing the early part of the NL Wild Card Game; only the names have changed.) Just like Max Scherzer, however, Strasburg collected his wits like a pro and hung in there through six total innings without giving up any more runs. Even though the Nats didn't score while he was pitching, he at least kept the game close enough to give the Nats a realistic chance at a comeback. And indeed they did! In the sixth inning, Anthony Rendon hit a leadoff double and then scored when Juan Soto singled. In the seventh inning, Kurt Suzuki was hit in the face by a pitch thrown by Walker Buehler, and had to come out of the game. Two outs later, Trea Turner walked, and Clayton Kershaw came in as a relief pitcher. Adam Eaton struck out. Kershaw remained on the mound in the eighth inning, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto hit back-to-back home runs to tie the game 3-3, forcing a stunned Kershaw out of the game. Patrick Corbin, who had a meltdown in NLDS Game 3, redeemed himself by getting four outs as a relief pitcher, and the game went into the tenth inning. That's when the "magic" started. Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly, who had baffled the Nats with a devastating combination of knuckle curve balls and fast balls in the ninth inning, gave up a lead-off walk to Adam Eaton. That was followed by a Anthony Rendon ground-rule double, obliging Kelly to intentially walk Juan Soto. (I tell you, that slugging combination of Rendon and Soto reminds me a lot of Maris and Mantle!) Next up was Howie Kendrick, a former Dodger who had something to prove. A sac fly or a hard ground ball would have been enough to score a run, but it was [not] enough for Howie! He hit a long fly ball that just cleared the center field fence for a grand slam, his second as a National. WOW!!! That gave the Nationals a 7-3 lead, and the 54,000+ fans in Dodger Stadium started streaming out in dejected silence. Sean Doolittle pitched a flawless bottom of the tenth inning, aided by a diving catch of a short fly ball in center field by Michael A. Taylor to end the game. What a fairy-tale happy ending!
What happened in Atlanta yesterday evening was an unimaginable gut blow to Braves' fans, who have endured numerous disappointing losses in the NL Divisional Series over the past two decades. The St. Louis Cardinals scored ten (10) runs in the first inning, setting a postseason MLB record, and the game was essentially over after the first 20 or minutes. Somehow the Braves' pitcher Mike Foltynewicz crumpled, after having performed so well in NLDS Game 2. Final score: 13-1. You never know...
So, the Nationals will head to St. Louis for the first two games of the National League Championship Series on Friday and Saturday. The Cardinals have one of the best organizations in baseball, and they know how to win when it really counts. But if you match up the talent player for player, I think the Nats have an edge. Add to that the sky-high mojo the Nats have built from their amazing regular season comeback, the Wild Card Game comeback, and the NLDS comeback, I'd say the Nats have a big advantage. But I'm not counting on anything, and the series could easily go to six or seven games.
Game 5 of the ALDS will take place in Houston tonight, as the Tampa Bay Rays try for a historic upset against the top-seeded Astros. The winner will then face the Yankees on Saturday in Game 1 of the ALCS.