By Will Beverina
The Washington Nationals have a 2-1 National League Division Series lead. Breathe.
The 8-3 score against the Los Angeles Dodgers makes game three look like a comfortable win for a team that comfortably won its division. But that’s not how playoff baseball works. Playoff baseball is not comfortable.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable moment for Nationals fans came in the first inning. Dodgers rookie shortstop Corey Seager, he of home runs in the opening innings of games one and two of this series, launched a fly ball to center field that looked destined for the bleachers of Dodger Stadium in the first inning on the first pitch he saw. With Washington starter Gio Gonzalez looking on, the ball landed short, bouncing off the wall for an RBI-double. Not an ideal start, but slightly better than the alternative.
For the Nationals’ offense, it was looking like déjà vu. Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda found himself in a jam early after a slow start, and it was Ryan Zimmerman who took to the plate in the first inning with the bases loaded. But with two outs, Maeda struck the Nationals’ first basemen out swinging, and Washington came up empty-handed despite working the 28-year-old rookie for 28 pitches in the opening frame—much like they bended Kershaw in game one without breaking him.
Maeda would not hold. The Washington bats continued to chip away at the Japanese product, pushing his pitch total higher and higher. Finally, after going through the order once, the flood gates opened. Jayson Werth started what would end up being a big night for him with a line drive to right field in the third inning. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Trea Turner was on first, and turned on the jets for a tying-run that narrowly beat the throw home from Yasiel Puig. The distraction of Turner’s manic run helped Werth to make it all the way to third, and the Nationals were now even at 1-1 with a runner in scoring position.
Even more unfortunate for the Dodgers was Bryce Harper coming up to the plate shortly after. The right fielder wasted little time in sending another line drive to Puig, who was unable to make an attempt on Werth’s trot to home plate. Just like that, Washington had the 2-1 lead.
The Nationals only piled on. Anthony Rendon, continuing his so far phenomenal performance in the playoffs, went yard on Maeda for a 2-run blast to left center, giving Washington a 4-run inning and a 4-1 lead after three.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez had managed to make it to the fifth inning unscathed after Seager’s initial score. He even retired 12 of 13 batters in the Dodgers’ left-handed heavy lineup. Carlo Ruiz, though, is not left-handed, and the 37-year-old, pinch-hitting for a pulled Maeda, sent a fly ball to left field that cleared the fence, a 2-run dinger that brought Los Angeles within one.
The rest of the game made for some very uncomfortable viewing. The tensest moment came when Shawn Kelley was brought on in the seventh with Chase Utley already on base. The right-hander was not phased, getting Howie Kendrick to lineout on a full count and then striking out Justin Turner to escape the inning. But the narrowest of leads, Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez and Kelley stepped in to pitch four scoreless innings for Washington, keeping the Dodgers lineup at bay.
And with the 4-3 lead still standing, the Nationals stuck the proverbial dagger into the hearts of Los Angeles in the ninth inning. Resurrecting the “Werthquake”, Werth mashed a ball off of closer Kenly Jansen to left center field for a solo shot that expanded the lead to 5-3. The runs kept coming when Zimmerman hit his own double off the wall next to a leaping Josh Reddick to bring home both Daniel Murphy and Harper, with Chris Heisey capping things off with a sacrifice fly to bring guide the first baseman home. With the 8-3 lead, Nationals fans could finally exhale.
Solis earned the win for Washington with his stellar outing in relief, getting four outs and allowing only one hit. Maeda dropped the game for Los Angeles, his first-career postseason start.
Game four of the NLDS is slated for 5:05 p.m. at Dodger Stadium. Both teams have yet to announce, but the Nationals have the option of either Joe Ross or Reynaldo Lopez to start the game while the Dodgers can bring in Clayton Kershaw on short rest or rookie Julio Urias.