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Bullpen, baserunning cost Nats in season-ending loss to Dodgers

Bullpen, baserunning cost Nats in season-ending loss to Dodgers

The Major League Baseball postseason is known for its surprises, but sometimes the results can be vividly familiar. After four games of airtight relief pitching, a fortuitous change of playoff character for the Nationals, their bullpen orchestrated an untimely letdown to allow another opportunity to advance in the postseason vanish into the night. 

With their 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NL Division Series on Thursday, the Nationals' season is over, and once again it ended far sooner than they expected.

This one didn't feature a blown lead quite like in 2012 or 2014. But the Nationals' relievers couldn't come through when counted on, resulting in yet another crushing playoff defeat.

The latest October disaster took place in the top of the seventh inning and it began with Max Scherzer's final pitch of the night, one that resulted in a towering solo homer by Joc Pederson that bounced into the visitors bullpen. 

"I gave as good an effort as I’ve ever given in my life. I put everything I got in every single pitch," Scherzer said. "The pitch I got beat on I hit my spot. I executed my pitch, he just made a great swing on it."

Pederson's bomb tied the game at 1-1, but matters would sink to much deeper depths before the inning was over. Yasmani Grandal drew a walk off reliever Marc Rzepczynski and later scored on a Carlos Ruiz single. The catcher pinch-hit against Blake Treinen and smacked a line drive off the glove of Anthony Rendon and into left field.

Setup man Shawn Kelley took over from there and served up a rocket triple off the center field wall to Justin Turner, the star of the series. That scored two and made it 4-1 Dodgers. Kelley then left with a nerve issue in his right arm. He is expected to be fine.

The Nationals inched closer with a jolt of a home run from Chris Heisey in the bottom of the seventh. The backup outfielder clobbered a two-run shot to left field off Dodgers reliever Grant Dayton. It was the first postseason pinch-hit homer in Nats/Expos franchise history, and it cut the Dodgers lead to one.

The Nats would get another chance in the inning by loading the bases on singles by Clint Robinson and Bryce Harper, and an intentional walk to Murphy. Rendon, however, then struck out swinging against closer Kenley Jansen to extinguish the rally. The seventh inning lasted a whopping 66 minutes.

"That's pretty unbelievable, actually," Trea Turner said of the inning's length. "It was a wild game."

Dodgers starter Rich Hill only made it 2 2/3 innings despite striking out six. He allowed one run on three hits and two walks during that span. 

Rookie Julio Urias later took over and walked Harper in the fifth, but ended the inning by picking him off at first. Urias nearly picked Harper off moments earlier. The Dodgers rookie, who threw only 77 innings during the regular season, led the majors in pickoffs. Harper decided to test him again and paid for it.

That wasn't the only baserunning mistake made by the Nationals. They nearly scored a run off Urias in the bottom of the sixth after Jayson Werth drew a leadoff walk. With two outs, he was sent home by third base coach Bobby Henley on a Ryan Zimmerman double to the left field corner. Werth, however, had no chance to score. He was dead on arrival with the relay throw beating him to the plate by about 30 feet. 

"After the fact, hindsight, [do I] wish I could have it back? Well sure, that's human nature," Henley said. "We tried to be aggressive all year. It's our style of play. Does it hurt? Sure it hurts. Any time it doesn't work out, you feel like it may have cost us."

"We’ve been aggressive ever since I’ve been here on that play. You live and die by those moments sometimes," Werth said.

The Nationals had another solid chance in the third inning with two men in scoring position. Turner led off with a single, stole second and then took third on a Harper flyout. Murphy was intentionally walked and stole second himself. But Rendon lined out hard to center field off reliever Joe Blanton to end the frame. The Nats third baseman set a Division Series record by stranding 22 men on base against the Dodgers.

"You can't be the best all the time. You can't always come out on top. You've gotta get knocked down every now and then," Rendon said.

L.A. got little going against Scherzer until the fifth inning when Josh Reddick singled for their first hit of the night. Pederson and Andrew Toles each singled to load the bases. Scherzer proceeded to escape by striking out pinch-hitter Andre Ethier and getting Chase Utley to ground out to short. That allowed 43,936 to catch their breath after one of the more intense sequences of the night.

[RELATED: PHOTOS: Bryce Harper pays tribute to Harambe with bat decal]

Danny Espinosa drove in the Nats' first run in the first inning on a single to right field off Hill. It was Espinosa's first RBI and just his second hit of the NLDS. The Nats shortstop had previously been 1-for-11 with eight strikeouts and three hit-by-pitches in 14 plate appearances.

Espinosa scored Murphy all the way from second. But it wasn't easy, Murphy was given an aggressive green light by Henley and he had to do a stutter-step juke to avoid the tag by Grandal at home. It was another questionable send, but it worked out much better than the one with Werth. The Nats took a 1-0 lead that would hold until the seventh.

The Nationals had a final stand in the ninth inning and got two runners on base on walks by Harper and Werth. The Dodgers then called on former MVP Clayton Kershaw to replace Jansen - who tossed a career-high 51 pitches - for the final two outs. He got Murphy to pop out and rookie Wilmer Difo to go down swinging. The Nats went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

"I think they brought in their horse," Harper said. "That’s why Clayton Kershaw is one of the best."

"That’s probably one of the craziest, if not the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of in my career, in my life. Man. This is a tough one to be on the wrong side of," Scherzer said.

With the loss, the Nationals are now 0-3 in their history in NLDS games with a chance to clinch. Manager Dusty Baker extended his MLB record to nine straight losses in playoff games with an opportunity to advance.

"It's not a very pleasant pain. I've gone through that pain a few times now," Baker said.

The city of Washington will go another year without a team in the semifinals of a major sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) league. The unfortunate streak will now extend to 19 years.

[RELATED: Redskins legend John Riggins fires up Nats fans]

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Why Nationals' Max Scherzer picked college over pros — at first

Why Nationals' Max Scherzer picked college over pros — at first

When Max Scherzer was a teenager, he didn't know that one day he'd actually become a two-time Cy Young Award winner. He had no guarantee he'd make it to the majors, much less play in five consecutive MLB All-Star games. 

All he knew was that he had the option to go pro as a kid or go to college, and back then, the Nationals' ace needed a contingency plan in case baseball didn't work out. Fortunately for Scherzer, it did, but he doesn't regret going to college at the University of Missouri, telling Santana Moss on CSN's "Route 89" going to school was a no-brainer.

"It was actually a really easy decision," Scherzer told Moss. "When you get drafted out of high school, you're going to be going into the minor leagues, and that can take three to five or six years — multiple years — in the minor leagues, and you're forfeiting your right to further your education."

Scherzer was drafted in the 43rd round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003, but he opted to play for Mizzou for three years, which turned out to be a great decision. The Arizona Diamondbacks then drafted him in 2006 in the first round as the 11th overall pick. 

"A lot of times when you sign out of high school, you don't make it to the major leagues," Scherzer continued. "So I realize that your education — that's your safety net.

"You need to further your education in college, and if you do get drafted out of college, you're in a much better position to try to chase your dreams because if it doesn't work out, you still have one year left of school and that's much easier to obtain rather than try to go through four years when you're not coming out of high school."

MORE NATIONALS: Stephen Strasburg returns to the mound

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Nationals offense provides no support in Strasburg's return

Nationals offense provides no support in Strasburg's return

SAN DIEGO -- Yangervis Solarte hit a two-run home run off Stephen Strasburg in the first inning of the right-hander's first start in almost a month and the San Diego Padres beat the Washington Nationals 3-1 Saturday night.

Strasburg (10-4) retired the first two batters he faced before allowing a single to Jose Pirela and then the homer to the switch-hitting Solarte, who drove a 96-mph fastball to right for his 13th.

Strasburg then settled down against his hometown team, retiring 10 straight batters and 13 of 14. He went six innings, allowing two runs and four hits while striking out eight and walking one.

He hadn't pitched since July 23, when he went only two innings at Arizona. He went on the disabled list with an elbow nerve impingement.

Strasburg pitched at West Hills High in suburban Santee and then at San Diego State for coach Tony Gwynn before going to the Nationals with the No. 1 pick overall in the 2009 draft.

While Strasburg pitched well, the Nationals had only three hits.

San Diego's Travis Wood (2-1) also settled down after laboring through the first inning, when he threw 35 pitches but didn't allow a run. He was unscathed until the fifth, when he allowed a one-out single to Jose Lobaton and a two-out double to Adrian Sanchez. The run was unearned because of Woods' throwing error on Strasburg's sacrifice bunt that advanced Lobaton.

Wood allowed just the unearned run on three hits in seven innings, with two strikeouts and two walks.

Brad Hand pitched the ninth for his 11th save.