A light wind outside of Nationals Park swayed the assembled flags located above the scoreboard in centerfield. No, they were not created by the swings and misses of the Dodgers hitters, but rather to hit the sold out stadium of Washington fans with a bitter reality—that baseball is a cruel spot.
For back-to-back games the Dodgers aces had struggled. The best offense in the National League had sputtered, and the team with the most wins in franchise history had been exposed. A 35-year-old journeyman starting pitcher had humbled them.
Anibal Sanchez did not have a team this past winter after the Atlanta Braves didn't want to re-sign him. He signed with the division rival Washington Nationals instead, and after a sluggish start to the season, he suddenly soared in the second half.
For four shutout innings Sanchez stifled the Dodgers hitters with a combination of curveball, change-up, and cutter. The same pitcher the Dodgers defeated in Game 2 of the 2018 NLDS was suddenly unhittable, and a looming deficit in the series with Max Scherzer on the mound in Game 4 was staring them straight in the face.
Then Max Muncy took a mighty swing, and Russell Martin turned back the clock. Enrique Hernandez resuscitated his sleeping bat, and Justin Turner blasted a three-run home run that landed in the Dodgers bullpen.
One inning was all it took to change the momentum of the game and the balance of power in the National League. One swing was all it took to flip the script, and give the Dodgers a 10-4 victory in Game 3, and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five NLDS on Sunday night at Nationals Park.
Do you remember this date? It was October 19, 2009, and a lazy single to left field in the top of the fourth inning off future Dodger Joe Blanton in Game 4 of the NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies tied the game at 2-2. That was the last time Russell Martin had an RBI in a Dodger uniform.
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When Martin came to bat with two outs and runners at the corners in the top of the sixth inning, he had already struck out twice in the game. Facing Game 1 starter Patrick Corbin, Martin fell behind 0-2. The Dodgers had already stranded the bases loaded once in this game, and it appeared as if they were about to strand two more. Martin was 2-for-9 with four strikeouts and no extra-base hits in his career against Corbin.
Martin worked the count back to 2-2, and then smacked a slider into the gap in left-center for a bases-clearing double and the Dodgers had defied the odds to take their first lead of the game.
Two-batters later, a struggling Hernandez hit another bases-clearing double to give the Dodgers a 5-2 lead. After an intentional walk to Muncy, and a pitching a change, Turner crushed a cutter into the Dodgers' bullpen for a three-run home run and a commanding 8-2 lead. All of the runs in the inning came with two strike counts and two outs, and the seven runs scored were the most in a postseason inning in Dodgers franchise history.
Los Angeles starter Hyun-Jin Ryu had the best ERA in baseball this season. He's an NL Cy Young award candidate and an experienced postseason pitcher. Nonetheless, he was still nervous just hours before the game.
Maybe it was the nerves, but he did not look like his dominant self to start the game. He issued a one-out walk to Adam Eaton, and then missed with a fastball to Juan Soto that sent the 43,423 at Nationals Park into a frenzy. As Soto's home run flew majestically 408-feet to the deepest part of the park, the stadium roared and Washington had an early 2-0 lead.
Ryu relaxed after the rough first inning and pitched four scoreless frames from then on, leaving with the lead for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning. Ironically, with Ryu not on the mound for Game 3, Dave Roberts might have never started Martin, who replaced Will Smith in the starting lineup after catching Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw in Games 1 and 2.
Martin made Roberts look like Albert Einstein with his decision to start him in Game 3, and the veteran catcher rewarded his manager with a heroic peformance. Martin added a two-run insurance homer in the ninth and finished the game with four RBI and two runs scored.
The Dodgers bullpen took over from there, but not without a few hiccups along the way. Relief pitcher Joe Kelly, much maligned early in the season, showed the same erratic behavior that bothered him through April and June. Kelly walked three of the first four batters he faced, and threw two wild pitches, allowing a run to score, before leaving without recording a single out in the sixth inning.
Thankfully, a baserunning mistake by former Dodger Howie Kendrick helped the Dodgers escape without allowing the Nationals to further put a dent in their armored lead.
Julio Urias, Adam Kolarek, Kenta Maeda, and Kenley Jansen combined to pitch four scoreless innings of relief to send the Dodgers to a clinching chance on Monday. A win in Game 4, and the Dodgers advance to the NLCS. A loss, and a date with destiny in a winner-take-all Game 5 is upon them.
Early on, it looked as if the baseball Gods might banish the Dodgers back to their humble beginnings. But baseball is a cruel sport, and all it took was one transformative inning for the winds to change, and the tide to turn back towards the Dodgers favor.