Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto clobbered back-to-back solo homers off Clayton Kershaw in the eighth inning and Howie Kendrick tattooed a go-ahead grand slam against Joe Kelly in the 10th inning to propel the Nationals to an improbable 7-3 extra-inning victory over the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday night. With the victory, the Nationals collected their first playoff series win in their 14-year history and advance to take on the Cardinals in the NLCS, which kicks off with Game 1 in St. Louis on Friday.
For seven innings, the Dodgers were in complete control of their playoff destiny. Veteran slugger Max Muncy, who had been hitless -- 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts in 15 career plate appearances -- versus Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg entering the winner-take-all contest, clobbered a two-run homer to right field to set the tone in the opening frame. Versatile utility specialist Enrique Hernandez increased the Dodgers’ early lead with a solo shot in the second inning and hard-throwing righty Walker Buehler delivered 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball before a series of disastrous decisions and a complete breakdown in terms of situational bullpen management by Dave Roberts ultimately led to their stunning elimination. It’s a gut-punching loss for the Dodgers, who set a franchise record with 106 victories during the regular season and entered the postseason as the odd-on favorites to secure their third consecutive National League pennant.
It’s impossible to overlook how much of this outcome is the result of an utterly indefensible series of decisions by Roberts in the late innings. Ironically he made the right call, electing to hand the ball to veteran southpaw Clayton Kershaw with the tying runs on base and two outs in the seventh inning, after Buehler threw a career-high 117 pitches. The 31-year-old future Hall of Famer whiffed veteran outfielder Adam Eaton on three pitches to end the threat. However, Roberts baffling decision to bring Kershaw back out to face the heart of the Nationals order in the eighth inning backfired immediately as Rendon and Soto left the yard to tie the game up at three runs apiece. The decision to stick with Kershaw -- rather than hand the ball to lights-out righty Kenta Maeda to begin the frame -- was questionable at the time. However, allowing Kershaw to also face Soto, especially on the heels of Rendon’s leadoff homer, is the one that deserves the most scrutiny. Lefty specialist Adam Kolarek appeared to be ready to face Soto, but Roberts elected not to turn to him with the lead still intact. As if the eighth inning meltdown wasn’t bad enough, he also made the bizarre decision to stick with mercurial righty Joe Kelly for an additional frame to open the 10th inning.. Predictably, Kelly issued a leadoff walk to Eaton, served up a ground-rule double to Rendon and intentionally walked Soto before coughing up a go-ahead grand slam to Kendrick.
The Nationals late-inning heroics may have been overshadowed by the Dodgers’ epic collapse, but they shouldn’t be forgotten. In what could have potentially been his final start in a Nationals’ uniform, Strasburg settled down after a rocky start to keep them in the contest by delivering six solid frames. He was charged with three runs on six hits and finished with seven strikeouts, falling just short of becoming the first pitcher in major-league history to record 10-plus strikeouts in four consecutive postseason starts. After failing to come up with a timely hit throughout the early stages of the contest, both Rendon -- who blasted a career-high 34 home runs and led the major leagues with 126 RBI during the regular season, seems primed to cash in with a massive multi-year contract in free agency -- and Soto -- who has cemented his status as the face of the franchise and a foundational offensive cornerstone for years to come -- came through in the clutch. Finally, it was Kendrick, an unheralded veteran utility man, who delivered the decisive blow in extra innings. After yet another improbable late-inning comeback, the Nationals are starting to feel like a team of destiny. They’ll face another stiff test against the Cardinals, but it’s clear that you can never truly count them out, no matter the odds.
Folty, Fried Implode; Cardinals Clobber Braves
Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz and lefty reliever Max Fried melted down in spectacular fashion, coughing up a whopping 10 runs over the span of 44 pitches in a disastrous opening frame, enabling the Cardinals to cruise to a 13-1 blowout victory in Game 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday evening. With the victory, the Cardinals advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2014. They’ll square off against the Nationals in Game 1 at home on Friday. Meanwhile, the perpetually snake-bitten Braves have been defeated in eight consecutive trips to the NLDS and have failed to advance to the NLCS since 2001.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that a series, which seemed to last an eternity and ultimately came to be defined by numerous controversies, sparked by the controversial on-field actions of the players on both teams and a much-needed national conversation led by Cardinals’ rookie Ryan Helsley about eliminating the “Tomahawk Chop” in Atlanta, was over in the blink of an eye at SunTrust Park on Wednesday night. According to a tweet by Baseball Gauge creator Dan Hirsch, this contest featured the lowest total win probability change (.58) of the 1,598 games in postseason history. As he summarized perfectly, “You could make an argument that this was the most boring postseason game in history.”
On the heels of a stellar performance in Game 2, in which he limited the Cardinals’ lineup to just three hits and whiffed seven over seven scoreless frames, Foltynewicz turned in the single-worst start of his professional career on the biggest stage imaginable. The 28-year-old righty surrendered four runs on two hits and three walks and was lifted after throwing only 23 pitches. After Fried came on and proved unsuccessful in his attempt to put out the fire, Foltynewicz became the first pitcher in postseason history to allow seven runs -- six earned -- or more while recording just one out.
Cardinals’ slugger Marcell Ozuna kicked off the 10-run explosion with an RBI single before Matt Carpenter drew a bases-loaded walk and Tommy Edman delivered a two-run double to chase Foltynewicz from the contest. After issuing a bases-loaded walk to opposing pitcher Jack Flaherty, Fried coughed up a pair of two-run doubles to Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong, before also uncorking a wild pitch -- which allowed an additional run to cross the plate -- before the disastrous frame mercifully came to an end. According to MLB.com Cardinals’ beat writer Joe Trezza, it was the highest scoring first inning in major-league postseason history, surpassing the previous-high (seven runs) set by the Milwaukee Braves against the Yankees back in the 1958 World Series.
Despite the double-digit cushion, Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt didn’t take any chances, electing to stick with his ace Jack Flaherty, who ended up throwing 104 pitches over six innings. He allowed one run on four hits and also recorded eight strikeouts. A solo homer by Josh Donaldson in the fourth inning represented the lone tally against him in this one. The hard-throwing 23-year-old righty was virtually unhittable in the second half of the regular season, posting a microscopic 0.93 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and 130/24 K/BB ratio in 106 1/3 innings across his final 16 starts, dating back to July 7. He also limited opposing batters to a preposterously-low .139 batting average during that span. Flaherty has given up only four runs, while striking out 22 batters over 20 innings of work in three postseason starts. He’s lined up to take the ball for the Cardinals in Game 3 and also a potential Game 7 of the impending NLCS.
Rays, Astros Set For Game 5 Showdown
It’ll be a pair of former Pirates starters -- Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow, both of whom were members of the Pittsburgh’s loaded 2011 draft class -- on the mound in Minute Maid Park on Thursday night, with a trip to face the New York Yankees in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series on the line. After Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander failed to finish off the Rays, the Astros will hand the ball to their ace Gerrit Cole, who recorded a franchise-record 326 strikeouts during the regular season and is undefeated over his last 23 starts, to attempt to finally close out the series. The hard-throwing 29-year-old righty authored one of the most dominant performances in postseason history earlier in the series, racking up 15 strikeouts over 7 2/3 scoreless innings in a Game 2 victory. He recorded 33 swinging strikes in that contest -- the highest total for any pitcher in a postseason game in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008). It was the most swinging strikes by any pitcher in a game this year.
After impressive back-to-back victories to even the NLDS at two games apiece, the Rays will counter with Glasnow, who coughed up two runs over 4 1/3 frames in Game 1 earlier in the series. It’ll be all hands on deck for the Rays in the winner-take-all contest. Rays manager Kevin Cash confirmed Wednesday that Charlie Morton, who allowed only one run and racked up nine strikeouts over five innings in a Game 3 victory over his former organization, will be available out of the bullpen. However, he’ll be pitching on two days of rest after throwing 93 pitches, so it seems unlikely that he’ll be asked to go more than an inning, if necessary. Blake Snell, who served as the Rays' closer in a Game 4 victory earlier this week, is also expected to be available in relief of Glasnow this one. Get your popcorn ready, folks.
AL Quick Hits: Jon Heyman of MLB Network confirmed Wednesday that the Twins will exercise their $12 million club option on Nelson Cruz for 2020. … Yankees manager Aaron Boone confirmed Wednesday that Aroldis Chapman (hand) is "fine" for the ALCS. … He also said that Aaron Hicks (elbow) is "very much a consideration" for the ALCS roster. … Zack Britton (ankle) will be on the Yankees' roster for the ALCS. … According to multiple reports, both John Farrell and Buck Showalter are expected to interview for the Angels’ managerial opening.
NL Quick Hits: Brian McCann told reporters after the Braves’ loss to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday night that he is retiring from baseball. … According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, former Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi will interview for the Mets’ managerial opening. … According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Mets will interview Diamondbacks farm director Mike Bell for their managerial vacancy. … Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday that the Giants have interviewed A’s quality control coach Mark Kotsay for their managerial opening. … Giants top prospect Joey Bart, the second-overall selection in the 2018 MLB Draft, suffered a fractured right thumb during Tuesday's Arizona Fall League contest, but will not require surgery.