Offensive jolts often come from where they are least expected in the MLB playoffs, however sometimes they emerge from exactly where a team is seeking them, from a player they signed in free agency in part because of his postseason prowess, or from another only in the lineup due to an injury.
The Nationals received all of the above in their 5-2, series-tying Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday. All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy keyed several rallies and catcher Jose Lobaton launched a three-run homer, as the Nats adjusted to and conquered L.A. starter Rich Hill, who began his day with seven strikeouts through three scoreless innings, only to unravel shortly thereafter.
"That's what playoff baseball is all about right there, man," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "For Loby to do that, it really turned the game around. To say it was a big swing is an understatement."
Murphy had the type of day that made him an NL MVP candidate this season. He landed three singles - two to drive in runs - walked and scored. He approached Hill with patience and resolve to spark a lineup that collectively looked off-balance early against the Dodgers southpaw.
Murphy's first RBI knock scored Trea Turner in the fifth inning. His second, poked to opposite field off lefty Grant Dayton, brought home Jayson Werth, who reached on a double with two outs in the seventh.
Murphy helped the Nats go 4-for-8 with runners in scoring position after a 1-for-10 performance in Game 1. The Dodgers went just 1-for-9 in Game 2.
"He wants to be in that position," Baker said of Murphy. "You have to want to be in that position."
"On both sides you can see that senses are so heightened in the playoffs," Murphy said. "It's so much fun."
Lobaton's homer in the fourth inning was a massive breakthrough for the Nationals, their first real sign of life against Hill. Lobaton took a curveball - Hill's signature pitch - and dropped it in the visitors bullpen in right field. The sellout crowd erupted as Murphy jumped and raised his arms with joy rounding third. The Nats suddenly had a lead for the first time in the series.
"Man, that was huge," manager Dusty Baker said. "I didn't think anybody could hit a home run out of left field today, the way that wind was blowing everything back. I mean, he had to hit it a ton."
"When I hit the ball, I didn't know it was going to go out," Lobaton said. "When it went out, I was like 'wow, that's pretty cool.'"
That flipped a switch after Tanner Roark dug them a hole with two runs allowed in his first three innings. The Nationals' most consistent starting pitcher this season, Roark was not his usual self on Sunday. Whether it was playoff jitters, or his long wait to pitch - seven days of rest since his final regular season outing - Roark couldn't command the strike zone and began his outing with 30 balls among his first 60 throws.
Roark was all over the place, nearly decapitating Dodgers rookie superstar Corey Seager with an errant fastball in the first inning. Seager then answered with a laser home run over the right field fence, much like he did off Max Scherzer in Game 1.
Roark also encountered trouble in the second and third innings, the latter including an RBI single by Josh Reddick. Lobaton dropped the throw in from right field on his tag attempt at the plate. Roark went 4 1/3 innings and allowed seven hits and three walks.
The Nationals missed a few chances to score early on Hill, including with the bases loaded in the bottom half of the second. Murphy singled, Ryan Zimmerman walked and Danny Espinosa took a fastball off his left arm. Lobaton, however, then hit a grounder right to Hill, who threw home for the forceout to begin a 1-2-3, inning-ending double play.
Lobaton's big swing in the fourth built off a strong performance in Game 1 by fellow catcher Pedro Severino. After pitching in with a double and a run, Severino was replaced by Lobaton because of the latter's three career hits off Hill. Manager Dusty Baker had a hunch and it proved prescient. Through two games, both backstops have helped compensate for All-Star Wilson Ramos, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
"[Lobaton] will probably be starting... tomorrow," Baker said. "Boy, just keep it coming."
After Roark exited, the Nationals got key outs from their bullpen. Marc Rzepczynski struck out Yasmani Grandal and got Howie Kendrick to line out to strand three runners in the fifth. Sammy Solis took over for Rzepczynski to end the top of the sixth on an Adrian Gonzalez flyout to leave two runners on base.
Blake Treinen replaced Solis to record a dominant seventh inning. He got Reddick to line out to left, Yasiel Puig to ground out to short and Grandal to go down staring at a slider.
"You just try to finish your inning with nobody on. You don't want to give them any momentum," Treinen said. "To be able to get after [Grandal] early and put him away, it means a lot to be able to finish your inning clean."
Treinen continued his effort in the eighth inning, with Kenrick going down looking at a sinker that barely clipped the bottom edge of umpire Chris Guccione's strike zone. After that, it was veteran Oliver Perez who retired former Phillies stars Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley on groundouts. And after Perez, closer Mark Melancon tossed a scoreless ninth.
"Both sides were aggressively going to their bullpen, and this kind of shows you the importance of the bullpen in these playoffs," Baker said.
"Our bullpen, everybody we bring in is pretty lights out," Harper said. "Melancon shut the door right there and it was a beauty."
Murphy and Lobaton brought home the runs, but others in the Nationals' lineup also made their mark. Zimmerman singled and walked to follow his two-hit performance in Game 1. Turner added two singles, a run and a steal. Bryce Harper singled and Espinosa reached twice, each time getting hit by fastballs from Hill.
The Nationals fought for this one. Now the NLDS is locked at 1-1 as they tilt west for Game 3 in Los Angeles.
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