For as much focus that is applied to managerial decisions, defensive mistakes, bullpen collapses, pinch-hit at-bats and pitching gems in the MLB playoffs, postseason games often boil down to one simple premise. If one team is given an opportunity by their opponent, no matter how unexpected that chance may be, they have to take advantage.
In the playoffs all teams are good. They got to this point in part because they don't do the things that bad teams do to beat themselves. The good clubs commit very few missteps, and the same applies to great players. Clayton Kershaw, among them.
On Friday, in Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nationals were given a window few teams have been offered. Kershaw, he of three Cy Youngs and an NL MVP award, did not have his best stuff. He was uncharacteristically off, still sharpening his tools since returning from a back injury. His curveball missed low in the dirt and that left his fastball more hittable than usual.
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That allowed the Nats to notch three runs against him and chase him after five innings. That would usually be enough for ace Max Scherzer, a Cy Young winner himself. That would normally represent a considerable break. Not on this night.
The Nationals had Kershaw in a vulnerable state, but could not come away with a victory that probably should have been theirs.
"We had him on the ropes a couple times, the big hit just escaped us," manager Dusty Baker said.
Now the Nationals are down a game in a best-of-five series, just two losses from elimination. They have essentially lost the home field advantage they worked so hard to procure.
"We worked him really good. We answered back and we knocked him out of the game in five innings," outfielder Jayson Werth said. "Obviously we had some opportunities and didn't get it done."
Kershaw gave up eight hits after doing that only three times in 21 starts during the regular season. Only twice did he allow as many runs as he offered on Friday night. The Nationals created scoring chances and could have had more, but let him off the hook in several key spots.
Danny Espinosa struck out twice to end innings and left six men on base. Scherzer popped out with the bases loaded to end the second. All three moments had the sellout crowd rocking Nationals Park before all took their seats in disappointment. The Nationals went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine baserunners.
Scherzer fell just short in a big spot at the plate, but his performance on the mound was what truly hurt the Nationals. He found trouble early with four runs through three innings, three of them on home runs. The Nats ace would recover to go six innings, but those four runs were all the Dodgers needed. Their bullpen took over after Kershaw and combined to throw four scoreless frames.
The Nationals would have more opportunities after Kershaw exited. Like, when Daniel Murphy walked with out in the seventh, only to get caught stealing second soon after. Or, when Clint Robinson doubled with two outs in the eighth before Chris Heisey struck out looking to closer Kenley Jansen.
Losing to the Dodgers in Game 1 is tolerable, even in a short series. Losing to Kershaw can be even be expected. But losing to him on a day he didn't have his ace stuff is an especially tough pill to swallow.
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