Any elimination game in a playoff series regardless of the sport is a pressure cooker for sure. The 2019 NLDS is no exception as both the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers face different types of pressure in the win-or-go-home scenario.
The final game of the best of 5 series on October 11 will feature two of the league’s most formidable starting pitchers: seasoned veteran Stephen Strasburg of the Nats, who was lights out in game 2 winning 4-2 to even the series in LA, and young Walker Buehler, who was even more dominating in a 6-0 blanking, yielding only 1 hit in 6 innings in the opener, will face off in what should be a tension-packed, epochal finale.
For the Nationals, they are seeking to escape the NLDS for the first time in five tries. The team has failed in previous attempts despite their gaudy records during the regular season. Three of the four eliminations occurred on their home field as the dismayed and disappointed fans endured the inglorious experience of watching the opposition (Cardinals, Dodgers and Cubs in 2012, 2016 and 2017, respectively) celebrating on the infield at Nationals Park.
There is added pressure to finally move on to the League Champion Series and beyond as the Nats are facing a future that will likely not include free agent star 3rd baseman Anthony Rendon and maybe Ryan Zimmerman—the original Nat and considered the face of the franchise—among others who will probably depart.
The Dodgers have a different story and have felt the mounting pressure to win. They have not won a World Series since the Kirk Gibson-Orel Hershiser-Mickey Hatcher phenomenon in 1988. Dozens of playoff games had ensued during these three decades including two World Series appearances (2017 and 2018) without a ring despite the team’s high payroll for many of those seasons.
In the World Series elimination games, both at Dodger Stadium, the opposition scored early that succeeded in deflating the crowd’s energy, and both the Astros and Red Sox never looked back. Angelinos were forced to witness the victors exchanging their uniform shirts and caps for World Champion t-shirts and caps right in front of them as the Dodgers despondently meandered to the clubhouse from the third base dugout.
The feeling in LA, as I have read, is this better not happen again this year. Holding a 2-1 advantage, the Dodgers had the chance to put the Nats and their rightfully maligned bullpen away. But fiercely competitive Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young award winner, would have none of it. And Zimmerman, perhaps playing his final home game as a National, struck the decisive blow in a 6-1 Nats victory, forcing game 5.
|The Nats Stephen Strasburg will try to help advance the team |
to the next round
The Dodgers are the better team with a deeper bench and jaw-dropping defensive versatility. Their 106-56 record in the regular season attests to their superiority as a club, and they ran away with the Western Division by a record 21 games. They possess strong starting pitching, a powerful line-up and more options in the bullpen than the Nats have. The Dodgers, an offensive juggernaut, broke a National League record for home runs in a season with 279.
The Nats, however, appear to be taking on the proverbial “team of destiny” mantle. Starting the season 19-31, they managed to finish with a 92-69 record despite the worst bullpen in the league, closing with an 8-game winning streak that grew to 9 after the amazing, improbable comeback victory over the Brewers in the Wild Card game.
Their good fortune surfaced again in game 4 of the current series as a gust of wind intercepted a Max Muncy deep drive to center in mid-air and was caught easily instead of leaving the park. And later in the game with the bases loaded, Joc Peterson’s smash down the right field line was foul by an inch. Had the ball been fair, the hit would have cleared the bases and changed the complexion of the game in a major way.
So it comes down to what should be an exciting game 5 on Wednesday. The Dodgers’ longer history of not capturing the title puts them in a position where the pressure will be intense. The Nats feel the pressure, too, but in a different way. Playing at home, the Dodgers will feel it more.
One thing is for sure: one of these teams will be celebrating on the infield and donning NLDS championship shirts and caps and popping champagne in the clubhouse and will move on to the next round. The other will ponder what might have been and go home to face the media and a disappointed fan base yet again.