This is why we watch sports.
In a game that felt so much longer than its four hours and thirty-two minutes, more than forty players took the field. There were fifteen hits, seven runs, eleven pitching changes, and a twelfth pitcher serving as a pinch-runner. In one of the most evenly matched playoff series in recent memory, the Dodgers and Nationals went down the edge of the abyss and stared in together. It was Dave Roberts and the Dodgers who emerged.
Game five of this series figured to be one of the best games of the postseason before it even started. Max Scherzer, one of the titan pitchers of our time, against the dumbfounding and improbable Rich Hill (of 2015 independent ball fame), for the right to roll the dice against the generational Cubs. The game meant the right to attempt to climb an even taller mountain. It felt like the last game of the World Series.
For four hours, the Dodgers and Nationals battled, with Harold Reynolds presiding over it all. 43,936 fans stuffed themselves into Nationals Park with hopes that for the first time in so very long, a Washington baseball team would win a playoff series. When Hill only made it to the third inning, it seemed as if they had a chance. That was when Roberts made the first of an army of managerial choices that may very well define his career for years to come.
In the third inning, with two outs, Joe Blanton entered the game. Blanton has served as the primary setup man for Los Angeles and has been nothing short of brilliant. He threw 80 innings with a 1.01 WHIP, struck out 80 men, and walked 26. Relievers like Blanton typically do not enter games in the fifth inning, let alone the third, but this is the month of Buck Showalter and an absentee Zach Britton, of Terry Francona and Andrew Miller pitching early and often. ‘Anything is possible in October’, so the sayings and marketing schticks go. We didn’t know just what that meant until Thursday night.
Blanton entered, and was followed by Julio Urias, and by Grant Dayton, who could not stop allowing baserunners, including a two-run shot off the bench by Chris Heisey. So the next man into the fire was ‘closer’ Kenley Jansen.
It was the seventh inning. Jansen is not an Andrew Miller fireman. He is not a Joe Blanton setup man, nor is he a Julio Urias starter or a Grant Dayton middle reliever. Jansen is a Closer with a capital C, and one of the best in the business. He will be paid handsomely by some lucky team this winter because of his effectiveness. Closers sometimes enter in the eighth inning, especially in the postseason. Just ask Cody Allen or Roberto Osuna. Kenley Jansen, however, entered in the seventh. There were nine outs to go, three innings of work to be done with just a one-run lead and the best of the Nationals’ hitters lined up including a formidable trio of Trea Turner / Bryce Harper / Jayson Werth.
The seventh inning was already going on for quite a while, the Dodgers having taken the lead in the top half of the inning despite the efforts of Scherzer and five Washington relievers (the seventh inning in total took over an hour). The Dodgers emptied their bench of almost all of their position players, including both backup catchers. Yasiel Puig is the only Dodger without a curveball who did not get his name on a scorecard, and even he was used as a decoy pinch-hitter before being called back into the dugout for Charlie Culberson, who would strike out on a foul bunt. Kenley Jansen entered in the bottom of the seventh inning after Dayton failed to record an out in the inning.
Despite Kenley topping out around 30 pitchers per appearance all year, he threw fifty pitches on Thursday night, holding the Nationals at bay for two innings, cleaning up Dayton’s mess and then pitching a scoreless eighth.
Before taking the mound in the ninth, he laid down the only successful sacrifice bunt of the game. He did so in his second plate appearance of the series. Most relief pitchers do not have two plate appearances during an entire season of baseball, let alone in a five-game stretch.
Jansen took the mound in the ninth. He recorded one out. The speedy Trea Turner popped up, but then Bryce Harper walked, and Jayson Werth followed up with a walk of his own.. Daniel Murphy, the newly minted best pure hitter in the National League, strode to the plate. Daniel Murphy, who nearly singlehandedly felled the Dodgers in 2015’s Division Series. Daniel Murphy, who had been a thorn in Los Angeles’ side once again this year. Daniel Murphy, the last man Roberts wanted to see with a bat in his hand while Jansen so clearly had given all he could and more to this game. Jansen was tired. He lost command of his pitches and could no longer throw strikes, which is not overly surprising given he had thrown more pitches in this single outing than he ever has in any other.
This is when Dave Roberts elected to make what may very well become the most iconic pitching change of the year. This is when Roberts cemented his place in postseason lore, for better or for worse, and this is when Clayton Kershaw lept into the fire with arms spread wide, welcoming the heat on his face, for it made him feel alive (it made US feel alive too).
Kershaw had rested for one day and one day only after he pitched into the seventh inning in the previous game of the series. Before Thursday night’s game, Roberts had said that Kershaw was absolutely unavailable to pitch. He was not supposed to be in this game, let alone put on his cleats and pick up a ball. He was not supposed to ask Roberts to be put into the game should Jansen falter. He was not supposed to make the long walk from the Dodgers’ dugout to the bullpen before the top of the ninth inning, when Mark Melancon finished making a fine hash of the Dodgers’ batters. Kershaw was not supposed to enter to face Murphy.
Fox Sports 1 was not supposed to follow him out of the bullpen, never going to commercial break. But he did, and they did, and so it came to pass. There may not be accurate words to describe the moments before that plate appearance, as Kershaw took his final warmup throws. Here was a meeting between two heavyweights. Here was Ali and Frazier. Here was Rocky Balboa, at the end of his wits, belabored and exhausted and thrust back into the ring with his life on the line.
Yet this was more than a prizefight. The climactic meeting of Kershaw and Murphy in the bottom of the ninth with two men on and the season on the line was a chess match with geopolitical ramifications, played blindfolded and with fully loaded revolvers pointed at their heads. Dave Roberts had done what so many have been begging to see ever since Madison Bumgarner stalked in from the bullpen and crushed the dreams of the entirety of Kansas City. Roberts was managing from the seat of his pants with a leverage index in his hand. This was the man for the job, after Blanton had been the man for his job, and Jansen had done quite literally all that he could.
Wilmer Difo would pinch-hit for the pitcher unless Murphy hit into a double play or hit the ball over the fence, as there was still only one out. But Difo, with all 77 of his regular season plate appearances, was an afterthought. The game was here and now, with Murphy at the plate and Kershaw on the hill. Roberts and Baker had played every card they had in their hands. What was left was only a deep breath, and a plunge.
It was over in two pitches.
Murphy popped up to the second baseman, and that was that. Difo went down swinging, quite fittingly on Kershaw’s signature 12-6 curve, the only one he threw all night. The Dodgers won the ballgame and the series.
Roberts played his hand perfectly. Given the hollowness of the Dodger pitching staff beyond Kershaw, Jansen and Blanton, it’s a small miracle that Los Angeles has made it this far. Roberts won the game the only way he could have, with his best men on the mound at the proper times. It’s difficult to imagine the Dodgers winning the game any other way.
What Roberts did on Thursday night, and what Francona did in his series against the Red Sox (and what Showalter didn’t do in his winner-take-all game against the Blue Jays) may very well echo across the sport. Bullpen management may have changed forever in these past couple weeks. There will be stalwarts and holdouts. But this was a glimpse of the future, and it came in an exceptionally played game.
The above narrative makes scant mention of the Nationals, who like the Dodgers played incredible baseball. Scherzer was dominant until he gave up a home run to Joc Pederson in an inning he should not have been part of. Melancon was ruthlessly efficient. It was not enough.
The last time Kershaw got a save was in 2006. He was playing in rookie ball. His catcher that day was...Kenley Jansen, who was signed as a backstop and moved off the position once it became clear that he would never hit.
Baseball is a funny and beautiful game, and Thursday night’s game was one of its crowning achievements. The Dodgers and Nationals slogged it out with all their hearts. In the end, it was the brilliance of Roberts, and the initiative and pure talent of Kershaw, that won the day. This was a game that will change the story on how to use one’s pitching staff, and whether or not the best pitcher of his generation is truly successful in October.
This game was a classic, and we are lucky to have been blessed with it.
Nicolas Stellini is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for Baseball Prospectus and BP Bronx. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.