If the Nationals are to advance to the NL Championship Series, further than they have ever traveled in team history, and further than any D.C. baseball team has been in 83 years, it will have to wait at least another 48 hours.
The Nats broke down superstar ace Clayton Kershaw to battle their way back in Game 4, only to see a Chase Utley eighth-inning single lift the Dodgers to a 6-5 series-tying victory.
Utley, a man who tormented the Nationals for years as a star on the division rival Phillies, made his mark once again. This time it came in October, with higher stakes on the postseason stage.
Now, it all comes down to Thursday. The Nationals and Dodgers will put their seasons on the line in Washington, each team hoping to exorcise the demons of their playoff past.
"Man, that was a hard-fought game on both sides," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's why we fought so hard for the home-field advantage. You don't think it's going to come into play, but most of the time, it does. And so we're going home."
Utley brought in Andrew Toles, who began the rally by getting hit by a pitch. The Nats and Dodgers now own a playoff-record with a combined 11 hit batters in this series.
Plunking Toles was the first sign of trouble for Nats reliever Blake Treinen after he recorded two quick outs to begin the frame. Once Toles got on, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called on veteran Andre Ethier to pinch-hit. He promptly singled to left field to shift Toles into scoring position. Utley then poked an 88 mile per hour slider past Daniel Murphy and into right field.
That helped the Dodgers overcome a three-run seventh inning for the Nationals against Kershaw, an effort that began with a leadoff single by Danny Espinosa, his first hit of the series. Trea Turner moved Espinosa to second on a slow-rolling grounder hit to shortstop Corey Seager with two outs.
Bryce Harper then kept the inning alive with a masterful eight-pitch walk after first going down 1-2 to load the bases. It was a matchup of the last two NL MVPs and it resulted in Kershaw's exit from the game.
Jayson Werth was then hit by a Pedro Baez pitch to score one run before Murphy answered with a game-tying, two-RBI single to left field off Luis Avilan.
"That's what baseball is all about right there, a matter of will," Baker said. "Kershaw was on empty. We knew it. They knew it. Everybody knew it. That was some battle."
Murphy did the most of anyone to bail out Nationals starter Joe Ross, who lasted just 2 2/3 innings in his postseason debut. The Nats right-hander gave up four runs on three hits and two walks. Two of those runs came on a no-doubter home run by Adrian Gonzalez in the first inning, a swing that gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead at the time.
Ross found more trouble in the third inning, his final frame. Justin Turner landed an RBI single to left field in between Werth and Trea Turner, the latter of which appeared to take an incongruent route towards the ball. Ross then hit Joc Pederson on the knee with the bases loaded to score a run. Again, lots of hit batters.
"He lost where the plate was," Baker said of the 23-year-old starter.
The Nationals also got early runs off Kershaw, including an RBI single to right field by Murphy, one that scored Turner from second, in the first. Turner led off with a single and was followed by a nine-pitch Harper walk to set up Murphy. Ryan Zimmerman flew out to right field with runners on the corners to end the frame. He went 0-for-4 on the day.
Kershaw gave up another run in the third, also on a swing by Murphy to score Turner. The rookie again led off with a single before Murphy sent him home on a sacrifice fly.
Murphy now has 17 RBI in 18 career postseason games. That's second-most in MLB history for players with 18 or fewer career playoff games.
Turner had three hits and three runs in the game. Werth and Murphy had two hits apiece, while Espinosa had one. Everyone else in the Nats' lineup went hitless.
It was the third inning when Kershaw settled in and started looking like himself. The former MVP retired eight straight batters through the fifth inning with four strikeouts during that stretch.
Kershaw found his groove for several frames as shadows crept in on the infield grass at Dodger Stadium. That didn't make it any easier for the Nationals against the three-time Cy Young winner, until the seventh when he finally cracked. He finished with 10 strikeouts, but five earned runs in 6 2/3 innings.
The Nationals' bullpen had to put in extra work once again and finally gave in for the first time in this NLDS. Reynaldo Lopez took over in the fifth inning and got two quick outs before letting Josh Reddick reach on an infield single. Pederson then brought him home on a double off the left field wall, a hit Pederson initially thought was a homer.
Game 4 featured four lead changes, including Utley's go-ahead single. It kept the Dodgers' season alive for at least two more days. On Thursday, they will look to play spoilers as the Nats - and Baker - aim to prevent another playoff collapse.
*Quote transcripts via ASAPsports.com*
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