WASHINGTON — Months ago, when the Washington Nationals weren’t even a .500 baseball team and the Los Angeles Dodgers were running away with the National League, a wise executive looked at the landscape of the league and offered a prediction. “The only thing that’s going to stop the Dodgers,” he said, “is the Nationals in a short series.”
The nightmare scenario of a first-round playoff loss has not come to fruition, not entirely, and yet after Washington’s 6-1 victory in Game 4 that sent their NL Division Series back to Dodger Stadium for a win-or-go-home Game 5 on Wednesday, it felt awfully prescient. Any team, even one as consistently excellent as the 106-win Dodgers, is vulnerable when facing the sort of elite starting pitching the Nationals possess. That truth is exacerbated even more by the unforgiving nature of a five-game series.
Major league baseball’s postseason is the scorpion-and-frog parable come to life. In an ideal playoff for the league, the best teams — that is, those whose 162-game excellence lent credence to the importance of the regular season and proved a superior level of talent and execution — would advance. It is against MLB’s interest for the Dodgers, a star brand in the country’s second-biggest media market, to lose. The playoffs don’t care. This is their nature.
Which, for the Dodgers, led to a long flight home early Tuesday morning. If a five-game series is unrelenting, a one-game series, which is essentially what they now face, is even more fraught with peril. There is, quite literally, no room for error(s). One can end a season. All 27 outs carry extreme value. Especially when the opposing pitcher is Stephen Strasburg.
The Nationals would pose a bad matchup for any team in a short series because of their starting pitching. With Strasburg, Game 4 hero Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, Washington entered the playoffs with the ability to unleash a starter and watch him throw six or seven or even more brilliant innings. Strasburg did it in a Game 2 win. Scherzer did it in a Game 4 win, on short rest, no less. Strasburg returns to face Walker Buehler, who blanked the Nationals in the Dodgers’ Game 1 victory.
His presence only slightly mitigates the Dodgers’ misfortune of facing Washington. Fifty games into the season, remember, the Nationals looked cooked. They were 19-31 — just more of last year, when they sleepwalked to an October spent at home. From that point on, they were almost unstoppable, finishing tied for an NL-best record. The other team that went 74-38 from May 23 on: the Dodgers.
Who against any other team in the NL would feel very good about their starting pitching, by the way. Buehler, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu each turned in an excellent 2019 season. All will be available in Game 5, with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts taking the all-hands-on-deck approach that makes elimination games so enjoyable to watch.
At least for those who don’t see the four numbers 1988 and start thinking of four-letter words. That’s the last time the Dodgers won a championship, and after seven NL West titles and back-to-back World Series losses, this feels a most inopportune time to run into a team as well-equipped as the Nationals to handle them. Don’t forget, the Nationals were a Juan Soto single and Trent Grisham error away from being the ones bounced in the wild-card game.
Now the Dodgers find themselves caught in the tangle of short-series necessity. The Dodgers wanted to save Buehler for Game 1 of the NL Championship Series, which starts Friday. Now he wouldn’t be available until Game 3. These are the machinations of the postseason, part of what makes each so fascinating and unique. Individual performances matter. Small samples are vital. A.J. Pollock is a very good baseball player. Going 0-for-12 with 10 strikeouts in this series has been a debacle. NL MVP favorite Cody Bellinger hasn’t been much better, going 3-for-15 with barely a whit of power.
Another small sample of note: six innings, one hit, no runs, three walks, eight strikeouts. That was Buehler’s line in Game 1. “There’s not a lot to it,” he said. “We’ve got to win a game, and if we don’t, we go home.”
Yeah. That about covers it. And after watching the Dodgers run roughshod through the NL all summer and into the fall, it’s a stunning proposition to consider. It’s also life in a game that isn’t always fair. In a short series, the slightest stumble can register on the Richter scale. A team that wins 106 games and a team that wins 93 games can be equals. Baseball norms can vanish amid the urgency. Nightmares can become very, very real.