Oh man. The Dodgers absolutely cruised through seven innings at home against the Nationals Wednesday night, in Game 5 of their divisional series. Walker Buehler was once again dominant. Postseason beast Max Muncy and Kiké Hernández pounced on opportunities presented by Stephen Strasburg’s early command troubles. Everything was lined up for Dave Roberts to turn the game over to his excellent bullpen for 10 outs. Instead, Roberts handed the ball to starting pitcher and noted postseason sore spot Clayton Kershaw.
This, ah, did not work out. Kershaw fanned Adam Eaton to strand two runners and end the top of the seventh, and then took the rubber again for the top of the eighth, where he would face the heart of the Nationals lineup. Kershaw missed on a first-pitch curve to Anthony Rendon, and then put an 89-mph fastball over the middle of the plate. Rendon, who’d been stringing together better and better at-bats over the course of the series, ripped it over the wall in left to make it a one-run game. On the very next pitch, before the Los Angeles crowd had even finished murmuring with anxiety over Rendon’s dinger, cleanup hitter Juan Soto demolished a hanging Kershaw slider 449 feet to right center for the longest home run of his career. Just like that, over the course of just three pitches in the eighth inning, the greatest pitcher in modern Dodgers history had blown the lead. The crowd was suddenly booing Kershaw as he was taken off, with a look of absolute hollowed-out devastation on his face.
Kenta Maeda—who frankly should’ve been toeing the rubber from the start of the inning—replaced Kershaw, and in short order mowed down three batters to retire the side. The game was still a long way from over. Davey Martinez went back to the starters-as-relievers well and called up Patrick Corbin, who’d been punished brutally in the role in Washington’s Game 3 loss. Worse, Corbin would have to face Muncy, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger. But in a reversal of the way the series had been going, Muncy popped out feebly on the infield, and after Turner was hit on the calf, Bellinger and pinch-hitter David Freese struck out to end the inning. Neither team produced much for offense in the ninth, and the game went to extras, in front of an audibly nervous and rapidly demoralizing home crowd.
Things didn’t take very long to resolve themselves. In the top of the 10th, reliever Joe Kelly walked Adam Eaton and then gave up a rocket of a double to Rendon, on a ball that screamed to the wall in left and then got stuck in the padding. With runners on second and third, Roberts decided to intentionally walk Juan Soto to load the bases and get to veteran Howie Kendrick.
Now. Kendrick absolutely raked in the regular season, in a part-time role, usually filling in out of position for Ryan Zimmerman at first base. He also mostly stunk in this series, and seemed to misplay at least one ball in the infield per game, and anyway Soto has had enough heroic moments already in this postseason that the logic here was solid. But Kendrick is a real good hitter, and Kelly was struggling, and I think you see where this is going.
The Nationals had maybe two or three hard-hit balls off Buehler in the first six-plus innings of this game, and with Strasburg’s slow start—he eventually settled in, found his curveball, and ground out six innings, but the damage had been done—it seemed very much like the Dodgers would cruise to victory. Kershaw’s implosion and Kelly’s nightmare 10th happened in such a whirlwind of shifting momentum and recalibrated expectations that the whole ridiculous final third of this game felt like it went by in 18 seconds. In one breath the Dodgers were sailing into the NLCS, in the next breath they were staring down an almost unbelievably cruel and brutal end to their excellent season.
So the Nationals have relieved themselves of their well-earned reputation for painful early playoff exits, first with a late-innings comeback win in the Wild Card game, and now with a late-innings comeback win in Game 5 of the NLDS, against the best and deepest team in the National League. They will face the Cardinals in the NLCS. The Dodgers head into yet another offseason of wondering how they managed to squander every advantage, again. They had it, and then they absolutely blew it.