WASHINGTON — The baseball rocketed through the harsh crosswind and landed on a patch of grass beyond the center-field wall to an earsplitting rumble. As Ryan Zimmerman trotted around the bases, howling in celebration of his three-run home run, Clayton Kershaw observed from the Dodgers’ bullpen at Nationals Park. He was available to pitch in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Monday night in relief, to perhaps replicate what happened three years ago in this same ballpark when he pitched the ninth inning to close out the Washington Nationals, but the fastball Zimmerman clubbed off Pedro Baez annulled that prospect.
The blast busted open a tight game, ultimately handing the Dodgers a 6-1 loss and forcing a decisive Game 5 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.
The Dodgers stacked their lineup with seven left-handed hitters, including pitcher Rich Hill, to counter Max Scherzer. Matt Beaty, one of the seven, started in left field over A.J. Pollock after Pollock went 0 for 11 with nine strikeouts in the first three games of the series. They confronted an aggressive Scherzer.
The right-hander relentlessly attacked the strike zone knowing his club depended on him pitching deep into the game to stand a chance. The Nationals’ bullpen holds just two reliable options. Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals’ other two elite starting pitchers, weren’t available. Strasburg threw a bullpen session earlier Monday. Corbin was rocked in two-thirds of an inning Sunday. A long outing from Scherzer was imperative for the Nationals to survive.
The aggression cost Scherzer in the first inning when Justin Turner barreled a 96-mph fastball and deposited it in the Dodgers’ bullpen. He wasn’t missing many bats. It was a risky, but imperative, approach.
Scherzer improved as the game progressed, retiring 14 of 15 batters from the second to seventh inning. There, he encountered turbulence. Beaty swatted a one-out single before Scherzer issued consecutive walks. With David Freese, one of the most prolific postseason performers in recent history, on the bench, Roberts elected to have Chris Taylor pinch-hit in the pitcher’s spot. Taylor struck out the eighth pitch of the at-bat. Joc Pederson followed with a line drive on the next pitch that landed inches foul down the right-field line. He grounded out on the next pitch to extinguish the Dodgers’ best scoring opportunity as they went 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position.
Scherzer roared as he walked off the mound. He punched high fives in the dugout. He did his job when his counterpart couldn’t.
Hill’s chances of pitching in the postseason appeared dim less than a month ago. He re-injured the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, an injury he sustained during spring training, Sept. 12 during his first start in nearly three months. But he was back on the mound 12 days later. He made two starts before the regular season concluded.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he wasn’t convinced Hill could pitch in the NLDS until he tossed three scoreless innings in the regular season finale. He still presented a risk. The left-hander was only built up to handle four innings or throw 60 pitches. Even if he was sharp, he would force the Dodgers to piece together at least five innings with their bullpen. Hill, however, didn’t last through the third inning.
Trouble began when he issued a leadoff walk to Michael A. Taylor, the Nationals’ No. 8 hitter. Max Scherzer struck out on a two-strike foul bunt attempt before Trea Turner slapped a groundball to the right side. It would have been a routine groundout, but the Dodgers’ were in a shift with three infielders to the left side of second base. The ball trickled into the outfield untouched. Hill turned around, realized it was a hit, and unleashed a few cuss words in frustration.
He exacerbated the situation by walking Adam Eaton to load the bases for Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ MVP candidate. Rendon shot a scare through the sky, lofting a long fly ball to the wall in left field. Beaty caught it for the second out and Taylor tagged up and scored. Hill stayed in the game to face Juan Soto, the left-handed-hitting half of the Nationals’ dangerous one-two punch, and he walked him to fill the bases again. That marked the end of his night. Kenta Maeda entered to face Howie Kendrick.
Hill departed angry. He fumed in the dugout. He took a gulp of water, spit it out, crushed the paper cup, and chucked it to the ground. He cursed while doing it. Minutes later, after Maeda got Kendrick to groundout to execute a successful escape, Roberts approached Hill. He put his hands on the veteran’s shoulders and offered words of encouragement.
Maeda followed his work in the fourth inning with a scoreless fifth. Pollock pinch-hit for him to end his outing as Urias warmed in the bullpen. Urias logged two innings Sunday and pitched on back-to-back days just twice in the regular season. Both instances came in September and neither included Urias throwing multiple innings in one of the outings.
But Urias was summoned anyway. He surrendered a leadoff single to Trea Turner. Adam Eaton dropped a sacrifice bunt to move Turner to second base. On cue, Rendon slashed a single to score Turner. Two batters later, Kendrick cracked a two-out single to chase Urias with runners on the corners.
Zimmerman crushed Baez’s second pitch and the Dodgers did not recover. The only pitches Kershaw threw were in a bullpen session during the ninth inning. He’ll almost certainly will be called on after Walker Buehler starts Wednesday. The Dodgers’ season could depend on it.
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