Thursday, October 10, 2019

MLB Playoffs: Day Seven

In the 2010's, the Cardinals and Dodgers have been regulars in the National League Championship Series.  The Cardinals made the NLCS four years in a row from 2011 to 2014.  The Dodgers got there in 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2018.  In fact, Dave Roberts -- the Dodgers manager -- had never failed to get the Dodgers to the NLCS since he got took over after the 2015 season.

By contrast, trying to reach the NLCS has been a nightmare for the Braves and Nationals.  The Braves have not been to the NLCS since 2001 -- they were eliminated in the Divisional Series in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, 2013, and 2018.  The Nats have never been to the NLCS -- they were eliminated in the Divisional Series in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017.  For that matter, other than the 2015 Mets, no team from the NL East had made the NLCS since 2010.

All of this history weighed on the four franchises going into yesterday's Game Fives.  First, the Braves -- who were playing at home -- would try to beat the Cardinals to win that Series.  Then the Nationals -- who were playing on the road -- would try to beat the Dodgers.

The Braves suffered a nightmare beyond what even the most committed pessimist could have dreamed up.  In the top of the first inning, before many of the Braves fans had even reached their seats, the Cards were ahead 10-0.  It was just a complete meltdown.  The game started at around 5 PM Eastern Time, and I could imagine lots of Braves fans skipping work early, getting stuck in traffic, and hoping to make it by 5:30 or even 6 -- only to listen with horror on the radio as the Cardinals scored run after run, and Atlanta's glorious, wonderful season (97 wins, the most for any Braves team since 2003) was over before its heroes even came to bat.

Then, for several hours, there was an odd waiting feeling as the Braves and Cardinals labored through eight mostly unnecessary innings, solely for purposes of the history books.  When it was all over, this intense series -- which featured four of the best games you could want to see -- had ended on a 13-1 clunker.  But that won't matter to all the folks in Western Kentucky who will be happy to see their beloved Cardinals back in the NLCS.

Meanwhile, the cameras switched out to Dodger Stadium, which still looks -- on television, at least -- much as it has done since the 1960's.  The Dodger fans were there, and they were roaring.  After all, the Dodgers were trying for their third pennant in a row -- something no NL team has done since the 1942-44 Cardinals.  All year, Los Angeles had been dominant -- their final record was 106-56 -- and the Nats seemed outgunned by comparison.  The Nationals had come this far on two good hitters (Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto) and two great pitchers (Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg).  Thru clever management, the Nats had been able to start Scherzer in the Wild Card Game, Strasburg in Game Two, Scherzer in Game Four, and Strasburg again in Game Five.  But the Dodgers were starting Walker Buehler, who had toyed with the Nats in Game One.  And if anything happened to him, there was always Clayton Kershaw, who is one of the greatest pitchers in history.

Sure enough, the Nats were in trouble from the beginning.  Joc Pederson lead off the bottom of the first for the Dodgers with a ground rule double, and Max Muncy followed with a two-run homer.  In the bottom of the second, Kiki Hernandez whacked a second homer, and suddenly the Nats seemed to be both figuratively and literally very far from home.

At this point, Nats' manager Davey Martinez -- who has been bitterly criticized by many Nats fans, including me, over the last two years -- had a big decision to make.  If he left Strasburg in there, and Strasburg couldn't do the job, L.A. might blow the Nats right out of the game.  But if he pulled Strasburg, how could the Nats' poor bullpen hold back the L.A. tide?  Martinez decided that he would live or die with Strasburg.  And Strasburg calmed down.  He completed six innings, and he didn't yield any more runs.

But Buehler was dominating the Nats, and L.A. led 3-0 going into the 6th.  In that inning, Anthony Rendon -- the Nats' best player -- hammered a double down the left field line.  And Juan Soto -- the Nats' new 20-year-old star -- singled him home.  3-1 for the Dodgers.  And then, in the top of the 7th, Buehler issued a two-out walk to put Nats on 1st and 2d.  At that point he'd thrown 117 pitches.  So Roberts pulled him, bringing in Kershaw.  Kershaw fanned Adam Eaton on three pitches to end that threat.  Still 3-1.

Now it's the top of the 8th, and the Nats' two good hitters -- Rendon and Soto -- are leading off the inning.  Kershaw no longer has his blazing speed -- he's more of a nibbler these days.  He started nibbling on Rendon, and the Nats' third baseman reached way down to golf an 89-mph fast ball over the left field wall.  3-2 Dodgers.  At this point, the Dodgers still had an enormous advantage -- they led the game, and only needed six more outs.  Once Soto batted, the Dodgers could end the Nats' season without facing either Rendon or Soto again.  But for reasons I will never understand, Roberts decided to let Kershaw pitch to Soto.  And Soto crushed the very first pitch way up into the right field pavilion.  The game was tied.  Kershaw was in agony -- the scenes of him sitting utterly alone in the dugout were devastating.

But the Dodgers were by no means beaten.  Patrick Corbin, a Nats' starter who had been humiliated by L.A. in Game Three, got two huge strikeouts to keep the Dodgers scoreless in the 8th.  In the 9th, however, the Nats had to bring in Daniel Hudson, one of their two (somewhat) trustworthy relievers.  He struck out Corey Seager, and then the Dodgers started hitting the ball hard.  Hernandez singled to left.  Will Smith smashed a ball to right that he thought was the game-winner -- but the ball died on the way, and Nats' right fielder Adam Eaton caught it at the fence.  Then Chris Taylor slammed a liner to center -- but the ball held up, and Michael A. Taylor caught it for the third out.

I thought the 10th inning would be the Nats' last chance.  Rendon and Soto were coming up, and the Nats were only an inning or two from running completely out of pitching.  The Dodgers would certainly win the game before Rendon and Soto could bat again.  If the Nats were going to win the game, they had to do it now.

Eaton, the Nats' number two hitter, led off the 10th against Joe Kelly, who was pitching for the Dodgers.  Eaton suffered through a brutal series -- he was 3-16 at the plate.  But he's a crafty veteran, and he had ground out five walks in the series.  He got another one here, and suddenly Rendon was up with a man on base.  Rendon is by far the Nats' best hitter, and much of their slow start was due to his early season injury.  During the summer, he had carried them back into contention, and he had already scored two of their runs in this game.  Now he smacked a long drive to left.  The Nats' radio guy thought it might be out, but it didn't carry.  In fact, it wedged in the padding at the bottom of the left field wall.  Ground rule double, so Eaton had to stop at third.  The Dodgers decided to walk Soto, load the bases, pull the infield in, and pitch to Howie Kendrick.

Kendrick was an unsung hero for the Nats all year.  He's 36 years old, he can't really field any more, and the Nats had basically gotten him to be a bat with some punch off the bench.  But when Natstown was ravaged by injury, Kendrick got more playing time than expected.  He hit .344 with 17 home runs in 334 at bats, and he had made a huge difference in the long summer.  Desperate for runs, Martinez had played him throughout the series with L.A., even though he made two errors in Game One at first, and one error at second in Game Five.  He hadn't hit too well, either, going only 4-19 to this point in the series, with no extra base hits.  But of course, I wasn't looking for a hit -- I just wanted a fly ball to score Eaton.

To the end of my life, I will never understand why the Dodgers didn't change pitchers.  So far, Kelly had retired no one in this inning, and the one ball put in play was Rendon's double.  The Dodgers left him in anyway.  Maybe they thought he could strike Kendrick out.  I don't know.  But when the I heard the "crack" on the radio -- and the immediate charge in the voice of the Nats' radio announcer -- I knew something big had happened.  The ball soared in a huge parabola, cleared the center field fence, made the score 7-3.  A grand slam.

And that was that.  The stunned Dodgers went down quietly in the 10th -- the final out coming on a running, diving catch by Taylor -- who was only in the game because of an injury to regular center fielder Victor Robles.  But the Nats kept Taylor in the organization for years because of his spectacular glove play, and he came through to close out the biggest game in their history.

Three years ago, Dave Roberts and the Dodgers had come storming back from being down two games to one to win a Divisional Series against the Nats -- with Kershaw coming in as a reliever in Game Five at Nats Park to nail down the win.  Now the Nats had turned the table.  In the last 19 innings of the series, the Nats had gotten 13 innings from Scherzer and Strasburg -- and the Dodgers only managed to score four runs.  Meanwhile, the Nats' two best hitters (Rendon and Soto) had come through in spectacular fashion.  On the biggest stage in Nats' history, they went 5-9 with two home runs, two doubles, three RBI, and five runs scored.  The Nats had structured everything to give their stars a chance to carry them, and that's exactly what happened.

I can't resist making one more point here.  For most of this decade, the Nats' biggest star was Bryce Harper, while the Dodgers had Yasiel Puig.  Four times Harper led the Nats to the playoffs, but he could never get to the next round.  Now the Nats are led by Anthony Rendon, and he drove them to the NLCS.

Meanwhile, Puig's teams won the first two pennants won by any Dodger team since Reagan was president.  Last year, the Dodgers only won 92 games, but Puig went 10-30 in the NL playoffs, and his three-run homer in the sixth inning of Game Seven of the NLCS had won the pennant for LA.  But he didn't fit the Dodgers' plans, and they got rid of him.  This year, without Puig, the Dodgers won 106 games, which seems like a big improvement.  On the other hand, in their last and most important eight innings of the year, they didn't score a single run.  And now they have all winter to think about that fact.

Tonight, the Rays and Astros will end what has been a very interesting set of divisional series.  It will be interesting to see if the Astros can bring order after the National League gave us so much chaos:

6:07 PM Central:  Tampa Bay at Houston (series tied 2-2) (Fox Sports One).

Other series:
St. Louis beats Atlanta 3 games to 2
Washington beats Los Angeles 3 games to 2

New York beats Minnesota 3 games to 0

1 comment:

  1. Every one of these feelings is what I felt at every same step in this game. You perfectly captured the experience of watching it. I hope Dave Roberts, Clayton Kershaw, Joe Kelly and the rest are all doing OK.