In meetings on one of the four off days before this National League division series began, the Dodgers’ pitchers discussed how they’d face Washington’s hitters. They decided they’d pound these Nationals with low-and-outside fastballs and attempt to overwhelm another with fastballs in the inner third of the strike zone.
In the seventh inning of Tuesday’s defeat-or-retreat Game 4 at Dodger Stadium, Blanton did as he said. He entered with two outs and the go-ahead run on third base, and required only three pitches to strike out Anthony Rendon. None were fastballs. The third was a slider placed precisely where he wanted, in a spot where Rendon could do little with it even if he hit it.
Blanton remained for another inning and threw 16 pitches, 14 of them sliders, to strike out two more. He was awarded the win when the Dodgers rallied in the bottom of the eighth to force a Game 5 Thursday at Nationals Park.
“In the bullpen, everything that you do good is raised up,” Blanton said. “When you’re out there, you throw your best pitch.”
Blanton began to warm up only when Avilan entered Tuesday’s game. Avilan threw two pitches, giving up a two-run single to Daniel Murphy before being pulled. So, Blanton said, he had to repurpose the extra adrenaline pumping in his veins because of the situation into readiness for his right arm.
His teammates noted the calm he exhibited on the mound and his satisfaction when he walked off it.
“He went through a lot in his career, and you can see how strong he is,” closer Kenley Jansen said.
Blanton, 35, had thrown 40 postseason innings before this series. A starter for the first decade of his professional career, he had started and homered in a World Series his team won. His career was already an unequivocal success.
But he had essentially retired two years ago. He was the worst starting pitcher in baseball throughout 2013, and the Angels released him the following spring despite owing him $8.5 million; Oakland picked him up then cut him, per his request, two weeks later.
He spent the season's duration tending to his Northern California vineyards, then decided to give this sport one last chance, citing the ever-decreasing size of his window to try. He worked himself into remarkable physical condition, his body better, stronger and quicker than it had ever been. And he pitched 76 solid innings for two teams last season.
Then the Dodgers signed him, for $4 million, to be a middle reliever. He made an extra million in incentives while working his way into their No. 2 relief role.
“I’m just happy for him that he’s kind of reinvented himself a little bit after the last few years,” said Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley, his Philadelphia teammate for four years. “He’s the ultimate competitor.”
Improbably, Blanton has been the Dodgers’ best reliever this series, his slider unrelenting in both its difficulty to hit and his dependence on it. He said he thrived because of his past, because of the good in it and because of the bad, because he knew how to feel.
“We’ve been there and we’ve won, we’ve been there and we’ve lost,” Blanton said. “We’ve kind of done it all. We’ve learned, mostly, just to try to treat it like another game the best you can. Obviously it’s a completely different scenario, but the more you can keep the pressure low on yourself, you’re better off.
“It was a long road there for a couple years. But I’m at where I’m at, and I’m kind of enjoying the ride right now.”