- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2016

LOS ANGELES — Two chances now. Two chances for what has been so difficult to accomplish. A Game 4, and, if necessary, a Game 5 to use for advancement out of the first round of the playoffs. Chances to end the brief torment of playoff failure of the last five years.

Those games are available as vaults to the Washington Nationals because Monday’s 8-3 win at Dodger Stadium put them in this place of prominence. The Nationals are up 2-1 in the best-of-five National League Division Series. They have out-hit and out-pitched the Dodgers with thoroughness the last two games, leaving them close, so close, to the next round.

“We’ve been fortunate here to be in the hunt coming down the stretch, almost every season that I’ve been in Washington, going to the playoffs,” Jayson Werth said. “It’s the third time I’ve been in the playoffs [with the Nationals]. I’m hoping this is our year.”

Game 4 is coming Tuesday, a third game in three days because of Saturday’s rainout. If the Chicago Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants on Monday night, sweeping the series, Game 4 of the Dodgers-Nationals series will be at 8 p.m. If there is a Game 4 in the other NLDS series, the Dodgers and Nationals will play at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Neither the Dodgers or Nationals announced their Game 4 starter Monday night. Washington is deciding between Joe Ross and rookie Reynaldo Lopez. Los Angeles is considering the early return of Clayton Kershaw or taking a chance with rookie left-hander Julio Urias.

Werth knows things can change, but he’s confident here. He often talks in positive tones, even believing toward the end of last season’s unraveling that Washington was somehow going to force its way into the playoffs.

Monday, the team’s shaggy leader was 3-for-4 with a walk and a stunning 446-foot home run. Werth’s 15th career postseason home run froze fielders and opened mouths as it flew into the left-field stands. Werth hit a cut fastball from Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen with such precision in the ninth inning that Los Angeles left fielder Howie Kendrick only turned to watch. He never pursued. Werth wondered if he had fulfilled a career-long ambition of hitting a ball out of Dodger Stadium. He was short, leaving him with the knowledge, that at 37 years old, the idea is likely to become a dream unfulfilled.

“If that ball doesn’t get out, I don’t think I can do it,” Werth said.

It was afternoon internally when Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker sat down for a morning press conference in a room adjacent to a field he once starred on. The Nationals had flown through the night, enjoying the spoils of a Game 2 win and chasing sleep. By the time the cameras were on again, Baker still hadn’t shaken the arduous travel.

“Not quite awake yet, but you’ve got to get awake by game time,” Baker said.

They were. Washington worked Dodgers rookie starter Kenta Maeda from the start, when hints of pending trouble for the Japanese import populated the first inning. No one on the Nationals‘ roster had faced the 28-year-old rookie before, leading to an assumption initial matchups should be in the pitcher’s favor. Instead, several Nationals hitters stayed on balance and took off-speed pitches from Maeda. The Nationals loaded the bases in the first, but did not score.

By the second time through the order, the pitch-taking harbingers of the first inning came through. Washington scored four runs in the third inning. Werth had walked in the first inning. His double in the second scored Trea Turner from first on an aggressive send from third base coach Bob Henley. Anthony Rendon had also walked in the first. He hit a two-run homer in the third, continuing his run since the All-Star break as the Nationals‘ most productive hitter.

“To be able to chase [Maeda] and get into their bullpen early was a big part of the game,” Ryan Zimmerman said.

The early lead only changed questions about Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez instead of eliminating them. What would he do with a 4-1 lead? He’s fought the padding and himself so often this season, a bump-filled run equal to that of Maeda would not be a surprise. Instead, he survived a one-out double by Howie Kendrick by striking out Corey Seager to end the third. Three long fly balls were threatening, but only outs in the end, turning the fourth into a 1-2-3 inning.

But, no, it just can’t be that easy for Gonzalez. Carlos Ruiz, a backup catcher acquired Aug. 25 from the Philadelphia Phillies, hit a pinch-hit, two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. The last time Ruiz homered was April 27. He has hit three home runs this season. The 37-year-old had answered for Jose Lobaton’s unlikely wind-defying home run on Sunday. The homer pulled Los Angeles to within one, 4-3, stoking what had become a dormant Dodger Stadium.

“If I could take back one pitch, we’re talking about a different game [afterward],” Gonzalez said.

From there, a glacially-paced 4:12 game was filled with jabs until the ninth. Moves and countermoves. Pitching changes, sparse baserunner totals, entrance music and pinch-hitters. Thirteen pitchers in all. Again, the Nationals‘ bullpen, one of the best throughout the season, stifled Los Angeles. It has not allowed a run in 12 innings of work during the NLDS.

The Nationals handed closer Mark Melancon a tension-free ninth after Werth’s home run was backed by three more runs versus Jansen, who is widely viewed as the best closer in the National League.

“We haven’t done anything yet,” Zimmerman said.

But it’s right there, just in front of their face. So close. One to go. Two chances to get it.

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