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Nats knock Kershaw out early, but drop Game 1 of NLDS vs. Dodgers

Nats knock Kershaw out early, but drop Game 1 of NLDS vs. Dodgers

Max Scherzer's fearless aggression on the mound is part of what places him among the absolute elite of his craft. He lives and dies by that never-back-down approach, a motto well-illustrated by the fact he led the majors in strikeouts this season, yet also topped the National League in home runs allowed. He prefers going right after those who step in the box to challenge him, knowing full well the danger of swimming in those waters.

That attitude, which has served him well so many times over the years, and so many times this year, was his downfall in the Nationals' 4-3 Game 1 loss to the Dodgers to begin the NL Division Series on Friday night in Washington. Scherzer got bit twice on first pitch strikes thrown right down the heart of the plate to dangerous hitters seeking just what he offered them.

Scherzer's first homer was on the initial pitch of the second at-bat of the game, as Dodgers rookie Corey Seager wasted no time making his presence felt with a towering shot to center field. Scherzer's second took place in the third inning, a two-run bomb launched by Justin Turner into the visitors bullpen in left. That made it 4-0 and spotted Clayton Kershaw a healthy early lead, one that he nearly let slip through his hands.

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“I made some mistakes, and they cost me," Scherzer said. "Giving up those two home runs, I really feel like that was the difference in the ballgame. I take ownership of that, and I’m accountable for that.”

The Nationals chipped away, beginning with two runs in the third inning brought home on a single by Anthony Rendon. Bryce Harper sparked the rally with a one-out double, and Jayson Werth followed with a walk. The two then moved over on a double steal helped by a Kershaw ball in the dirt to set up Rendon's two-run knock. 

The rally was halted by a Danny Espinosa strikeout, as he went down swinging on a pitch thrown about a foot above the strike zone. Espinosa also whiffed to end the fifth inning with runners on the corners. The Nats shortstop struck out in each of his three at-bats and left six total men on base.

"His swing was long tonight," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what's kind of frustrating when... he was swinging at balls out of the zone, and then balls in the zone he wasn't catching up to."

Washington got one more run in the fourth keyed by two rookies. Trea Turner sailed a sacrifice fly to center field to score Pedro Severino, who reached with a leadoff double and moved to third on a groundout by Scherzer. The Nats then cut the Dodgers' lead to one and upped Kershaw's pitch count to 83 through four.

One of the Nats' most enticing opportunities off Kershaw came in the bottom of the second when an error at second base by Chase Utley loaded the bases with two outs. The rally was started with singles by Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman, who had two on the night. It was Severino who smacked a grounder right to Utley and used his plus-speed — by catcher standards — to reach first. That brought up Scherzer, who worked a full count against Kershaw, only to pop out on a bloop flyball to shallow left field, a swing that came on a would-be ball four.

Scherzer made it six innings on 91 pitches with four total earned runs allowed. He was replaced by rookie Wilmer Difo, who pinch-hit as the first player summoned off the bench by Baker. Lefty Sammy Solis took over on the mound and got them through the top of the seventh. 

In the bottom half of that frame, Murphy drew a one-out walk but was thrown out attempting to steal second. Murphy was out of the starting lineup for the final 14 games of the regular season with a left buttock strain, yet he was given the go-ahead to steal in a big spot with the Nats down a run.

"I was surprised," Baker said, noting it was not a direct call from the dugout for him to run in that moment. "Our guys have a green light, if they think a guy is slow to the plate, which [Pedro] Baez is. I guess the leg felt better than I imagined."

"I thought he was slow enough for me to get, unfortunately he wasn't," Murphy said. "I can't get thrown out right there. It cost me an at-bat in the ninth inning as well, running into an out on the bases."

The Dodgers called on closer Kenley Jansen shortly thereafter hoping for a five-out save. He saw a host of pinch-hitters in the eighth, including Clint Robinson, who doubled with two outs. Chris Heisey, however, then struck out looking on a cutter that clipped the bottom edge of the zone. That out pushed the Nats to 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

Jansen would then bat in a critical spot for the Dodgers, who loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the ninth off Nationals closer Mark Melancon. Melancon quickly got rid of his counterpart with a swinging strikeout. Jansen, however, then went out and shut the door by dispatching Turner, Harper and Werth in order. That finished off five straight scoreless innings for both teams.

"That's just baseball," Harper said. "A hit there or blooper there and it's a different outcome. You've got to tip your cap to how their bullpen threw and how they played. Sometimes that happens."

The Nats did some damage against Kershaw with three runs off eight hits and a walk. That qualifies as an off-night for the three-time Cy Young winner, who allowed more than two runs just twice in 21 starts during the regular season. They battled his pitch count to places he didn't want it to go, and Kershaw showed fatigue at times. The sellout crowd of 43,915 did their best to rattle him with chants of his name.

It wasn't Kershaw's best day, but Scherzer didn't have the stuff required to take advantage and because of that, the Nationals may have let the Dodgers off the hook in a game they know was winnable, a game that could foster regret as this series moves on.

RELATED: Does Clayton Kershaw get away with balks?

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Nationals, without their big guns, fall to Mets

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Nationals, without their big guns, fall to Mets

NEW YORK -- Travis d'Arnaud hit two home runs and the New York Mets ended a three-game skid, rallying past a watered-down lineup of Washington Nationals 7-6 on Friday night.

Washington manager Dusty Baker said he needed to "give my big boys much needed rest" with the playoffs nearing, and not a single regular started for the NL East champions. Star Daniel Murphy pinch hit in the eighth and flied out.

MORE NATS: RATHER HAVE THE CUBS, BREWERS, OR CARDINALS IN NLDS?

The Nationals begin the Division Series in exactly two weeks. If the current standings hold, they would host the World Series champion Chicago Cubs to open the best-of-five matchup.

Adam Lind hit a three-run homer for Washington. It was the Nationals' 203rd home run this season, matching the franchise record dating to 1969 when they were the Montreal Expos.

Howie Kendrick had an RBI double and prized prospect Victor Robles lined a two-run triple in the fifth that put Washington ahead 6-1.

Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley exited in the eighth inning because of an apparent injury. He' has struggled this season and missed more than two months because of back problems.

Nori Aoki had three hits for the Mets, including a go-ahead double in the sixth inning off Joe Blanton (2-4).

Chasen Bradford (2-0) pitched a scoreless inning for the win.

Jeurys Familia, the Mets' third pitcher in the ninth inning, came on to strike out Robles with runners on first and third for his fourth save -- his first since May 5. Familia, who missed three months after surgery to repair a blood clot, entered as part of a double switch, with Kevin Plawecki taking over at catcher for d'Arnaud.

D'Arnaud hit a solo homer in the second and connected for a tying, three-run drive in the fifth that finished starter Edwin Jackson. That gave d'Arnaud a career-best 15 homers and marked his second multihomer game, the other coming in April against Washington.

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Mets starter Robert Gsellman allowed six runs in five innings. He moved up a day to pitch in place of ace Jacob deGrom, who was moved back in the rotation until Sunday because of a stomach illness this week.

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Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

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Cubs, Brewers, or Cardinals: potential postseason opponents for the Washington Nationals

The regular season is winding down and there is no drama in the nation’s capital.

With a stranglehold on the National League East for the entire season, the Washington Nationals were the first team in baseball to earn a playoff spot and their division. Since June, the Nationals’ lead has been hovering around 20 games. Their record against the division is 44-26 with three NL East series forthcoming.

Beyond that, positioning has not been a factor in the National League either. It was a near forgone conclusion that the Nationals were going to earn the No. 2 seed in the NL side of the postseason. There was a slight chance last week that Washington could pass the Los Angeles Dodgers with them losing 16 of 17 games. Alas, the Dodgers took two out of three in their series, solidifying their No. 1 seed hopes.

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Dusty Baker then basically threw in the towel for that race. He spread out his rotation to six pitchers and gave his players consistent rest. Focusing on the postseason more than the playoff race, he does not appear to care about their positioning.

With that, the Nationals are all but guaranteed to finish second behind the Dodgers. Floating between four and six games back, there is no sense of urgency.

There is no worry about the team in third either. The Chicago Cubs, as of September 22, sit seven games behind the Nationals and are in the thick of a Divisional race.

Either way, even if the Nationals were to collapse and the winner of the National League Central was to rocket up to second, the Nationals will play against whoever wins the division in the No. 2 vs. No. 3 match-up.

The Central has actually been the Nationals Achilles heel this year. They finished with a 17-13 record vs. NL Central teams. It is not the whole division the Nationals have to worry about though, just the one that comes out.

Entering Friday’s action the Cubs are well on their way to winning the division, according to fangraphs.com. Below are the current odds to win the division:

Chicago Cubs                     97.8%
Milwaukee Brewers          0.9%
St. Louis Cardinals            1.3%

This is slightly misleading though, because the Central could completely flip before the postseason. The lead is 4.5 over the Milwaukee Brewers and 5.0 over the St. Louis Cardinals. However of their final 10 games, three are against the Brewers, four against the Cardinals, all seven on the road.

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In the five-game NLDS the Nationals will face one of these teams. Even if it is the defending World Series Champions, you have to like the Nationals’ odds.

CHICAGO CUBS PREVIEW

Current record: 85-67
2017 Record vs. Washington: 2-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Jon Lester (11-8), Jake Arrieta (14-9), John Lackey (11-11), Kyle Hendricks (7-5), Jose Quintana (6-3)
Top position players: Kris Bryant (.292 BA, 28 HRs, 69 RBIs), Anthony Rizzo (.278 BA, 32 HRs, 107 RBIs)

If these two teams were to meet up, it would be easily the best starting pitching match-up in the National League. Likely the Cubs would only go to four guys, maybe three if they get desperate. With Jake Arrieta on the mind, that would be a dicey move to start the postseason. They have not played to the level that the 2016 did a year ago, but a majority of the position players are still in place and can still put together a run.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS PREVIEW

Current record: 81-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-4
Last head-to-head postseason series: Never
Starting pitchers: Zach Davies (17-9), Chase Anderson (11-3), Brandon Woodruff (2-2), Brent Suter (3-2)
Top position players: Domingo Santana (.281 BA, 28 HRs, 80 RBIs), Travis Shaw (.274 BA, 30 HRs, 96 RBIs)

As one of the hottest teams in the first half of the season, the Brewers are only relying on their early success. Their team has quickly cooled off and their number two starter Jimmy Nelson is out the remainder of the season. The rest of the roster is shaky at best as they are trying to stay relevant in the postseason chase. If the Nationals are fully prepared for the playoffs there should be no worries if Milwaukee represents the Central.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS PREVIEW

Current record: 80-72
2017 Record vs. Washington: 3-3
Last head-to-head postseason series: 2012; Cardinals won 3-2 in NLDS
Starting pitchers: Adam Wainwright (12-5), Carlos Martinez (12-11), Lance Lynn (11-7), Michael Wacha (12-8), Luke Weaver (7-1),
Top position players: Yadier Molina (.276 BA, 18 HRs, 82 RBIs), Tommy Pham (.311 BA, 21 HRs, 168 RBIs)

With both the Brewers and Cubs you know what you are getting, with the Cardinals it could be anything. The starting pitchers have a history of success, just not in 2017. Also how Wainwright comes back will be a huge factor in how the Central race will play out and how their odds in the postseason increase. With a mix of a young and aging line-up, the Cardinals can both win with the long ball and piece runs together by playing small ball. St. Louis is easily the most interesting team of the three and could be the scariest if the Wainwright comes back at 100%.

Both the Brewers and the Cardinals have to rely on each other to win the NL Central. They cannot do it on their individual series's alone.