WASHINGTON -- Few had been so desperate to fly to Los Angeles on such short notice.
The Nationals were in love with the idea, speaking of it as the lone focus for Monday. Find a way to get on a plane Tuesday, soar back to California and head for the shallow hills surrounding Dodgers Stadium. Stephen Strasburg would be available then. A chance to advance would come with him. Opportunity. It’s all they hunted after the season’s dismal start, all they kept asking for.
Max Scherzer’s dominant seven innings and Ryan Zimmerman’s three-run homer provided the travel plans they sought. Washington beat Los Angeles 6-1 Monday night in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Like the parallel series between St. Louis and Atlanta, the Nationals and Dodgers will play a fifth game to determine who participates in the National League Championship Series starting Friday.
Justin Turner’s first-inning home run jolted a non-capacity crowd. His clean swing through a Scherzer fastball put the Dodgers in front, 1-0, three batters into the game. Flashbacks to less than a week ago against Milwaukee stirred. Scherzer allowed a two-run homer to Yasmani Grandal and trailed 2-0 two hitters into the elimination game. There was no repeat Monday. A flyout from Cody Bellinger stalled the Dodgers in the first.
Scherzer progressively cooked from there. A leadoff double in the second was stifled. A 1-2-3 third followed. Strikeouts began to pile up: two in the fourth, three in a row in the fifth. Scherzer used 70 pitches to get there, positioning him well to work through seven innings, the top goal of the evening for him on the mound.
Anthony Rendon’s third-inning sacrifice fly leveled the game at 1-1. Los Angeles starter Rich Hill wilted rapidly, allowed just a run and was removed in the third. A chore emerged for Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: He needed to reach the ninth inning by using a bevy of bullpen parts. Kenta Maeda was summoned first. He cruised. Julio Urías followed. He crashed.
Urías allowed three hits in ⅔ of an inning before being replaced by slow-moving, hard-throwing Pedro Baez. Ryan Zimmerman, who earlier in the day discussed his future since his possible final game with the franchise loomed, again, later that night, came up.
Zimmerman was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his career against Baez. Left-handers Gerardo Parra and Matt Adams were on the bench. Davey Martinez let Zimmerman hit.
He took a slider. A 97-mph fastball high in the zone came next.
Zimmerman entered the game with 131 home runs at his home parks since debuting 15 years ago. He previously hit three in the postseason. No. 4 drifted toward the batter’s eye in center field, where the Nationals “W” is raised. Zimmerman watched, hopeful. Once it landed just beyond the railing -- similar to the 2017 NLDS home run which floated just into the flower beds in left -- Zimmerman began to round the bases, fists raised, destined to dance, his team in front 5-1 with Scherzer cruising and elation flowing through the stands. The old man had done it.
Rendon’s second sacrifice fly of the evening bumped Washington’s lead to 6-1. Comfortable. Seemingly. As much as possible in an elimination game with a knee-quaking bullpen crew waiting to see how long Scherzer could last.
Sean Doolittle began to warm when Scherzer started to decline. Back-to-back walks in the top of the seventh loaded the bases with one out. Pitching coach Paul Menhart went to the mound to chat with Scherzer, who was about as interested in the conversation as a short man would be in height reduction services.
Scherzer slogged to a 3-2 count against pinch-hitter Chris Taylor before striking him out with a wheezing slider that stayed up in the zone. Joc Pederson, who homered off Scherzer in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS, came up next. Doolittle was ready. Martinez never left the dugout.
Pederson pulled Scherzer’s 108th pitch narrowly foul down the right-field line. Los Angeles stalled for time to check replays since the ball landed so close to the white stripe. Turned out it was just a gasp-inducing strike. Pederson rolled the next pitch to Howie Kendrick, he of the numerous defensive challenges in Game 1, for a simple play. Scherzer screamed once first base umpire Alfonso Marquez squeezed his fist to signify the out was complete.
Scherzer finished with seven innings, four hits allowed, one earned run, three walks and seven strikeouts. He’s paid to labor in the most critical moments, a task which hasn’t been without its bumps in the past. Monday, he carried his end.
Which produced life Wednesday. The Nationals survived their April/May malaise, they survived trailing Milwaukee late in the Wild-Card Game, they survived another elimination game Monday night. One more chance to win a series for the first time in franchise history will come in Los Angeles. Flight booked.
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