By Jon Weisman
You are dry. You are bled dry, you are bone dry, you are a body crawling across the desert toward paradise, and not until the last reach of the arm, not until the last extension of the fingertip, not until the last grain of sand was behind you, did you know if you had reached a mirage or the Promised Land.
You open your eyes, and it’s paradise.
In the most epic Dodger playoff game in a generation, in the longest nine-inning playoff game in postseason history, the Dodgers found the buried treasure of a four-run seventh-inning rally, then watched Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw drag that golden chest to glory, defeating the Washington Nationals, 4-3, to advance to the National League Championship Series.
Jansen, whom Dave Roberts boldly put into the game with the tying run on base in the seventh inning, threw a career-high 51 pitches — four fewer than Dodger starter Rich Hill — to get the Dodgers within reach of victory.
Kershaw, the 19th Dodger to play in the game, got the final two outs, two nights after he threw 110 pitches in the Dodgers’ Game 4 victory — instantly recalling Orel Hershiser’s extra-inning save in the last playoff series the Dodgers came from behind to win, the 1988 NLCS.
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Could not be prouder of Clayton!!
— Orel Hershiser (@OrelHershiser) October 14, 2016
The winning pitcher was none other than Julio Urías, who became the youngest pitcher in MLB playoff history to get the W.
It was the victory of a generation. It was a victory that seemed to take a generation.
The game began timidly enough. One runner touched home plate in the first six innings, for Washington in the bottom of the second inning.
The Dodgers’ nemesis of the past two postseasons, Daniel Murphy, singling through the hole between third base and short. Anthony Rendon took a called strike three. Murphy stole a base he would have naturally inherited after Ryan Zimmerman walked.
Danny Espinosa fouled off one pitch, then steadied a single to right field. Josh Reddick fielded the ball promptly, but his throw home had no gas, and Murphy scored.
Hill got the next two outs to strand the runners, and until the game went into the blender in the seventh inning, that was the only blemish to the Dodgers’ mix-and-match pitching plan to counter Max Scherzer. Joe Blanton bailed Hill out of a first-and-third crisis in the third inning, and the stout relief hero retired all four batters he faced.
The only offensive excitement for the Dodgers in the first four innings was a walk, by Justin Turner, after taking two low called strikes and then fouling off seven others on his way to a 13-pitch, anything-but-free pass. That didn’t pay off in the fourth inning, but it appeared it might in the fifth, when Reddick, Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles each singled to load the bases, Toles’ hit barely finding an air current into right field over Murphy’s outstretched glove.
Andre Ethier, pinch-hitting for Blanton, struck out on a low changeup from Scherzer, and Chase Utley, the late-inning hero from Game 4, grounded up the middle to a well-positioned Espinosa, leaving the Dodgers — baseball’s No. 2 team in OPS with the bases loaded in the regular season — 0 for 9 with the sacks bloated in this series.
We moved on. In the bottom of the fifth, Urías became MLB’s youngest postseason pitcher since 19-year-old Don Gullett in the 1970 World Series. He pitched two hitless, shutout innings, allowing two walks — each of which was retired on the bases. Bryce Harper was picked off to end the fifth by the NL’s leader, and waved home from first on Zimmerman’s double, Jayson Werth was thrown out at home from you to Vin.
Barely had the buzz over the ill-chosen decision to send Werth faded when Scherzer, who struck out seven in the first six innings, threw his first pitch of the seventh. Pederson saw the ball, locked and socked to left center field, high and deep and … gone.
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As the Dodger dugout celebrated, Dusty Baker emerged to pull Scherzer. The game was tied, 1-1. The starting pitching duel, quantity vs. quality, was a draw.
And then, not as suddenly but almost every bit as stunningly, the inning unraveled further for the Nationals, who thanks to ineffectiveness and injury used no fewer than a postseason-record six pitchers to get their three outs.
Left-hander Marc Rzepczynski replaced Scherzer to face Grandal, and walked him on four pitches.
Right-hander Blake Treinen replaced Rzepczynski to face pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick, and gave up a broken-bat single to left field. Then, Austin Barnes pinch-ran for Grandal, while Charlie Culberson pinch-hit for Urías. Culberson struck out trying to bunt for the first out.
Left-hander Sammy Solis replaced Treinen, and the Dodgers brought in Carlos Ruiz. On a 2-2 pitch, the apparently indomitable Ruiz drilled it past a diving Rendon, scoring Barnes, and the Dodgers had their first lead — grabbing it against a lefty, no less.
Right-hander Shawn Kelley replaced Solis after Corey Seager flied out, to face the Dodgers’ Turner. On a 1-0 count, Turner blasted it: 106 miles per hour, 403 feet. Trea Turner couldn’t catch up to it, and the redhead had run the Dodger lead up to 4-1.
The Dodgers were done scoring in the seventh, but not before the Nationals went to their fifth reliever of the inning, after Kelley injured himself throwing a pitch to Adrian Gonzalez. Oliver Perez, the last of the Nationals’ lefties, came in to get the final out before the stretch.
Nearly 40 minutes after the seventh inning began, the Nationals came to bat, with nine outs to overcome the three-run deficit. Grant Dayton, so effective in the second half this year, walked Espinosa on four pitches, then gave up a pinch-hit, two-run homer to a chicken come home to roost, ex-Dodger outfielder Chris Heisey. The nervously comfortable three-run lead was down to a stringy, uneasy one.
When another former Dodger reserve, Clint Robinson, singled to right, Dayton was done without recording an out.
Jansen entered the game. In the seventh inning. This was the stuff of Steve Howe in 1981, or Tom Niedenfuer in 1985, depending on your level of optimism or pessimism. This was boulder-lifting time. This was the “Jungleland” solo for the big man — if he could finish.
Almost immediately, there was doubt. After Trea Turner flied out, Harper singled to left center, sending pinch-runner Joe Ross to third base as the tying run.
Werth, who struck out against Jansen to end Game 1 but homered off him in Game 3, pushed Jansen to a full count — then whiffed for the second out of the inning. Harper stole second on the pitch, but that only opened first base up to for the Dodgers to walk Murphy intentionally.
With the bases loaded, Jansen struck out Rendon, and 66 minutes after the seventh began, it ended with the Dodgers ahead by one.
Two Dodgers and a National walked in the 29-minute eighth inning, but none scored.
In the ninth, as the Dodgers went quietly, Kershaw went to the bullpen. In the peaceful afternoon, Dave Roberts had said there was “absolutely” no chance Kershaw would pitch in this game, but we were potentially in a world far beyond absolutes now.
Trea Turner faced Jansen, who started the bottom of the ninth with his 38th pitch. On a 1-2 slider in the dirt, Turner swung and missed. Ruiz quickly dashed to pick the ball up and throw out the sprinter Turner at first base.
Jansen, pushing past his career high in pitches to 45, missed on four straight pitches to Harper. The tying run was on. Dave Roberts visited the mound, and left Jansen in to face Werth.
The boulder could hardly feel any heavier. Jansen got to 2-2 on Werth, but the last two pitches — his 50th and 51st — missed badly.
Harper, the tying run, was on second base. Werth, the winning run, was on first base. Kershaw — who had thrown 110 pitches 48 hours earlier — was in the game.
And Daniel Murphy at the plate.
Kershaw threw his first pitch — a ball. And then a fastball — popped into nothingness, popped to second base, where Charlie Culberson caught it.
Wilmer Difo, a 24-year-old with 77 career regular-season plate appearances, came up as the final pinch-hitter for the Nationals. A ball, and a swinging strike, and another swinging strike.
One strike to go. A visit with Ruiz.
The runners go — and Difo grounds it foul.
On the 323rd pitch of this baseball game, in the record-breaking 272nd minute, Kershaw threw the ball, and DiFo swing. And … he … missed.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) October 14, 2016
Fifty-seven years after Vin Scully first uttered those magic words, it’s happening again. We go to Chicago.