OK, you can breathe now. That seventh inning. That ending. That strategy. The everything that makes the postseason so intense, so exciting, and so thrilling. The Los Angeles Dodgers move on to face the Chicago Cubs. The Washington Nationals go home to wonder, "What if ..."
1. And here comes Clayton Kershaw, the best the Dodgers have. The greatest pitcher in the world only had to get the final two outs of Thursday's 4-3 victory, but this game will now forever be known as the Clayton Kershaw Game. Two days earlier, he threw 110 pitches, an almost-great performance marred when he left the bases loaded in the seventh and saw all three runners score. This time, he entered with runners on first and second, one out, and no margin for error. At the plate: Daniel Murphy, the best hitter in the National League in 2016. Kershaw busted him on the inside corner with a 93-mph fastball for ball one. The next pitch was a 94-mph fastball, again on the inside corner, and Murphy popped it up to second base.
It came down to backup infielder Wilmer Difo, pinch hitting for the pitcher's spot, the final position player left on Dusty Baker's bench. The sequence was the master at work: 94-mph fastball just inside, a 94-mph fastball foul-tipped, a 91-mph four-seamer on the hands that Difo swung through, another slider chopped foul ... and then the hammer, that unhittable Kershaw curveball. Swung and missed. Dodgers win.
I liked the way Dave Roberts managed that ninth, even if it put the team in a precarious situation. Kenley Jansen had come in during the crazy seventh inning, trying to get nine outs. He was at 37 pitches, having never thrown more than 42 in a game in the majors. Kershaw was in the pen after telling Roberts late in the game he had a few outs in him. The question: Would he come in for Bryce Harper, who was 2-for-20 in his career off Kershaw? Maybe if Trea Turner reaches, that's what happens, particularly since Jansen doesn't hold runners well. Jansen got Turner but then walked Harper on four pitches. Jayson Werth crushed lefties this season with an OPS over 1.000, so it made sense to let Jansen go one more batter. He walked Werth on a 3-2 fastball, setting the stage for Kershaw's heroics.
Get this: It was Kershaw's first save since he was in the Gulf Coast League. His catcher? Kenley Jansen. His performance reminded me of two relief outings by another all-time great lefty. Randy Johnson won Game 3 of the 1995 American League Division Series for the Mariners and came back to win Game 5, pitching three innings in relief. In the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks, Johnson won Game 6 and came back the next night to get the final four outs and the victory when Arizona rallied in the bottom of the ninth. Like Kershaw, Johnson had a checkered postseason history until that 2001 World Series. One hopes this is the first step to Kershaw erasing that legacy and pitching in October the way he does from April to September.
— Dave Brown (@AnswerDave) October 14, 2016
Clayton Kershaw raised his arms over his head, and teammates piled on him. That game was unforgettable, and I have no clue what happened.
— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) October 14, 2016
an instant classic. Amazing job by Roberts cobbling that staff together, Jansen & Kershaw getting it done while running on fumes
— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) October 14, 2016
2. That crazy seventh inning that somebody will write a book about someday. Do they write books about division series? Probably not. Anyway, it was a wild chess match of an inning the likes of which we've never seen before. Roberts and Baker combined to use 14 players off the bench, which is completely insane. Baker used six pitchers in the top of the inning and another to pinch run in the bottom of the inning. The entire inning lasted 1 hour, 6 minutes. The Dodgers scored four runs to take a 4-1 lead. The Nationals scored two before Jansen struck out Werth with runners at the corners and then Anthony Rendon with the bases loaded. I'm sure some grumpy columnist somewhere will complain the inning exemplified what's wrong with modern baseball: too slow, too boring, too many pitching changes. I say it's what's right about postseason baseball, and the beauty of a game like this, why you need the entire roster to come through.
We don't have the space here to go through every decision, but in retrospect the biggest one was the first one Baker made: pulling Max Scherzer after Joc Pederson led off the inning with an opposite-field home run. Scherzer was at 99 pitches and maybe he didn't have much left in the tank. The pitch to Pederson was a fastball, outside corner, good location, give credit to Pederson for doing something he rarely does. It was only his second home run to left field all season.
I'm not necessarily second-guessing Baker, but pulling Scherzer set up the chain reaction that backfired, starting with bringing in lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who walked switch-hitter Yasmani Grandal. Knowing the Dodgers' weaknesses against lefties, check out the matchups and platoon advantages that inning:
Scherzer versus Pederson: Dodgers
Rzepczynski versus Grandal: Dodgers
Treinen versus Charlie Culberson: Nationals
Solis versus Corey Seager: Nationals
Baker actually "won" the platoon matchups in the inning, five to three, so it's hard to say he got outmaneuvered. But Roberts seemed one step ahead of him, especially with Ruiz coming off the bench to deliver an RBI single on a 2-2 changeup that glanced off the glove of a diving Rendon. Turner then delivered the big blow, a two-run double off the center-field wall. The only lefty-lefty matchups Baker got, however, were with Seager and Gonzalez, whom Roberts doesn't hit for. Pederson got to face a righty and the Dodgers' weak-hitting lefties didn't bat, so in that regard, Roberts won.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) October 14, 2016
Five pitchers later, I'm still not sure why Dusty took out Scherzer.
— Joe Posnanski (@JPosnanski) October 14, 2016
3. Speaking of Justin Turner ... The pending free agent is earning himself a big contract. Besides that big double he was awesome the entire series, hitting .400/.591/.733. He had a crucial plate appearance back in the fourth inning, drawing a 13-pitch walk after falling behind 0-2. Think about what that meant, forcing Scherzer to throw an additional 14 pitches by hanging in there and fouling off seven pitches and getting another batter to the plate that inning. That meant Scherzer was at 99 pitches after the Pederson home run instead of 85. Big, big factor in how that seventh inning played out.
— Jerry Hairston, Jr. (@TheRealJHair) October 14, 2016
4. Dave Roberts manages a gutsy game. First, he pulled Rich Hill with two out in the third inning after 55 pitches while trailing 1-0. Hill recorded eight outs, six via the strikeouts, and none of the three hits he had given up had been hit hard, so I thought it was a bit of a panic move. Maybe Roberts had a pitch count in mind since Hill was working on three days' rest, and you can also respect the urgency, not knowing if Scherzer was going to give up much. The key thing here was Roberts brought in Joe Blanton, his second-best reliever behind Jansen, instead of, say, Pedro Baez. So pulling Hill so early was certainly unusual, but bringing in his setup guy in the third inning was even bolder. Blanton retired Rendon on a hard liner to center to escape the jam and then pitched the fourth inning as well.
5. Baker's postseason nightmares continues. Has one manager lost so many heartbreaking postseason defeats?
Blowing a late lead in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series with the Giants and then losing Game 7.
The Bartman Game with the Cubs in the 2003 NLCS (and losing Game 7 after leading).
Blowing a 2-0 series lead over the Giants with the Reds in the 2012 NLDS.
Aside from the seventh inning and the bottom of the ninth, two key plays that Nationals fans will lose sleep over:
1. Third-base coach Bob Henley sending Werth home in the bottom of the sixth with two out and Ryan Zimmerman having doubled down the left-field line. Werth was thrown out by only 35 feet or so. About the worst send you'll ever see. I mean, I guess you can hope for a bad relay, but major leaguers don't mess up that easy of a play.
2. Bunting with Danny Espinosa in the eighth. You can imagine how the anti-bunt sabermetrics folks reacted to this on Twitter. As bad as Espinosa has been, there's always the chance he can run into a pitch. Plus, the batters behind him were Pedro Severino and Michael Taylor. You don't bunt hoping for Pedro Severino to get a hit. Espinosa popped out and Jansen quickly disposed of Severino and Taylor.
And that was that. Baker, in pursuit of that elusive World Series title, then saw his season end with Wilmer Difo facing Clayton Kershaw.