The Washington Nationals needed their star players — including the veteran face of their franchise, the one who’s been in town as long as the team itself — to ensure they would live to see another day in the National League Division Series.
It was Max Scherzer striking out seven batters in seven strong innings. It was team MVP Anthony Rendon collecting three RBI on three different at-bats — two of them on unsexy, but very MVP-like sacrifice flies.
And it was 35-year-old Ryan Zimmerman pounding a 3-run home run that lit up the home crowd that’s cheered for him since before Nationals Park opened.
“I’ve been in this game a long time,” manager Dave Martinez said, “and (in) big moments, big players seem to come through.”
The Nationals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-1 to tie the NLDS and force a Game 5 Wednesday, a potential turning point of historic magnitude for the franchise.
Known for their failures in the divisional round, the Nationals can advance to the NLCS for the first time by winning Game 5 in Los Angeles, where Stephen Strasburg will start opposite Walker Buehler. Washington is 0-for-4 in NLDS appearances, dropping Game 5s in 2012, 2016 and 2017.
“A lot of these guys didn’t ever even go through that kind of stuff,” he said. “And it’s a good thing. We’re moved on to: We’re expected to make the playoffs every year. We’re expected to compete. We have an ownership group that puts a competitive team on the field every year, which we’re very thankful for.”
The Nationals wouldn’t be on the NLCS’s doorstep without dominant performances from their elite pitchers. Scherzer had no problem recovering from a Justin Turner solo home run in the first inning and finished with seven strikeouts and four hits on 109 pitches. He struck out the side in the fifth inning and forced two outs to escape a bases-loaded jam in the seventh, despite his tank being empty by that point.
Scherzer kept his velocity down a tad to start the game, staying in the 95 mph range for the sake of endurance.
“I knew I needed to make a full-on start,” Scherzer said. “I know there’s times in the regular season where you’re not fresh, where you come into a game and you got to conserve where you’re at … But I knew I could still pitch. I knew I had all the pitches working and I was just trusting Zuk (catcher Kurt Suzuki).”
Rendon tied the game 1-1 in the third on a sacrifice fly off Dodgers starter Rich Hill to score Michael A. Taylor. Hill walked the bases loaded twice that inning before being yanked after 2 2/3 innings of work.
The Nationals had their way with the ensuing parade of relievers. Rendon singled home Trea Turner in the fifth. Howie Kendrick hit a clutch single, and — right after a Dodgers pitching change — Zimmerman smacked his home run 414 feet.
“I stood there and watched from third base,” Rendon said of Zimmerman’s big moment. “It was a good way to get the crowd into it. He is a franchise player. He means everything to this city, to this team.”
Zimmerman, after all the peaks and valleys of a 15-year MLB career spent solely with the Nationals, said he couldn’t describe the feeling as he rounded the bags to thunderous cheers.
“It’s hard to explain that kind of stuff,” he said. “Same thing I’m sure that (Scherzer) felt when he got out of that jam in the seventh inning. I mean, that’s why sports are special. You can’t replicate it. That’s why you work so hard during the season, the offseason — for times like that. You fail a lot in those times as well, so I think when you do succeed, the team succeeds, you take some time to cherish it a little bit.”
Rendon added his third RBI on another sac fly in the sixth, and that was plenty for the Nationals’ pitchers. Sean Doolittle got four consecutive outs in the eighth and the start of the ninth before Daniel Hudson entered to ice it.
It was not a clinching scenario, so there were no postgame Champagne showers in the clubhouse Monday, only players answering questions on how a team could be so resilient on the verge of elimination.
“Guys step up,” Kendrick said. “It’s been a different guy all year — a lot of the same guys here and there, but we can rely on everybody.”
It was a fitting way to sum up Washington’s season. Players like Hudson, Asdrubal Cabrera and Gerardo Parra arrived midseason and became surprise contributors. But oftentimes, the roster’s top players, the Scherzers and Rendons, are the best for a reason.
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.