The two men were separated by 35 paces, Corey Seager warming in the on-deck circle, Justin Turner crouching on the dugout steps. Together they shared one thought as Chase Utley stepped into the batter’s box in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the National League division series on Tuesday afternoon.
“That was the right guy to have up in that moment,” Turner said. “That’s exactly who we wanted.”
The Dodgers’ affinity for Utley defies statistical analysis. They hit him in the leadoff spot even though his bat has slowed. They start him at second base even though his range has shrunk and his arm has faded. They rely on Utley because in spots like this, the final inflection point of a day loaded with them, they believe he will not blink.
He will not blink. He will not smile. He will not reveal a sliver of emotion, even after he did what he did on Tuesday, raking the go-ahead RBI single off Washington reliever Blake Treinen to deliver his team to a 6-5 victory and force a decisive Game 5 on Thursday at Nationals Park. His hit extended this Dodgers season for at least one more game, after a game that jangled nerves, destroyed fingernails and left Clayton Kershaw in a state of dazed exhaustion.
After surrendering a three-run lead in the seventh inning, the Dodgers produced a run in a fashion that underscored the club’s oft-mentioned depth and self-described determination. Andrew Toles, the man who scored the winning run, started the season in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga. Andre Ethier, the man who extended the rally with his first hit of the postseason, is playing on a broken leg. Then came Utley, who provided the sort of series-altering blow against a Nationals reliever that the Dodgers had thirsted for during the last four games.
“If anyone gives up on this team, they haven’t seen us play a whole lot this year,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “And it starts with what Clayton did.”
The fatigue showed on the face of Kershaw. Asked to pitch on three days of rest, he answered with his usual brand of brilliance. He delivered 6 2/3 innings, leaving with the bases loaded but with his team ahead by three runs, the game in the hands of baseball’s most reliable bullpen in the regular season.
Then he watched in shock as the relievers crumbled behind him in a sequence that turned into a strategic misfire from Roberts. All three runners scored. Spooked again by October demons, Pedro Baez drilled Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth with the only pitch he threw. Daniel Murphy, the perpetual enemy of this club in October, tied the score with a two-run single off Luis Avilan.
As the lead disappeared, Kershaw sat inside the dugout in silence. He ran his fingers through his hair. Dirt caked his uniform, the product of a third-inning double that sparked a two-run rally. He could not shake the shock even after the eventual victory.
“I’m thankful that we pulled it out,” Kershaw said. “I’m exhausted, for one, just physically and mentally drained. But we get to live another day.”
That will be Thursday. In the tumult after the game, Rich Hill indicated he would start on short rest in Game 5. Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations, said the team had not officially decided. But he was happy to hear Hill wanted the baseball. The Dodgers intend to team Hill with 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias as the Nationals turn to Game 1 starter Max Scherzer.
The Dodgers utilized their own ace on Tuesday. For the fourth year in a row, he was pitching the fourth game in the first round on short rest. Kershaw toppled the Braves in 2013 and forced Game 5 with the Mets last season. In between, a hanging curveball to Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams ended the Dodgers’ season.
In those three games, Kershaw posted a 1.89 earned-run average. Research suggests pitchers are more vulnerable without regular rest. History suggests Kershaw is different. “He is an outlier for all of Major League Baseball,” Roberts said in the morning.
Before the series began, Kershaw informed the team he wanted the baseball if there was a fourth game. He stayed in contact with the training staff. Kershaw showed no symptoms similar to the ones he displayed before he herniated his disk, Roberts said. After a three-inning performance by Kenta Maeda drained the bullpen in Game 3, the Dodgers needed a starter who could last.
And, there was the obvious.
“You don’t want to go down without your best pitcher pitching,” Adrian Gonzalez said.
Washington countered Kershaw with 23-year-old starter Joe Ross. He had never before pitched in the playoffs. A bout of shoulder inflammation reduced him to one appearance in July and August. In three September starts, he completed the fourth inning only once. He allowed left-handed hitters to bat .317 against him this season. The matchup boded well for the Dodgers, even as Kershaw searched for his footing.
The speed of Nationals rookie Trea Turner helped create runs early. He scored twice after hitting singles. His presence forced Utley to guard second base, which created a hole for Murphy to hit an RBI single in the first and for Werth to hit a single that put Turner in position for a sacrifice fly by Murphy in the third.
Through three innings, the score was tied at two. Gonzalez had bashed a two-run homer off Ross on a letter-high fastball in the second inning. Kershaw helped break the deadlock in the third. He poked a slider down the right-field line and barreled into second base. He pumped both fists and hollered.
“He’s intense,” Utley said. “He’s a competitor.”
Two batters later, Turner added to his postseason resume by cracking an RBI single. The Dodgers cobbled together another run after Gonzalez and Josh Reddick walked. Ross hit Joc Pederson with a slider on the right knee to bring Turner home from third base and hand Kershaw a two-run advantage. The lead became three when Pederson hit an RBI double in the fifth.
Kershaw showed signs of fatigue in the sixth and allowed a flurry of hard contact. Roberts hoped for one more inning. The prospect appeared possible: Danny Espinosa, the leadoff batter, had struck out five times against Kershaw this series.
Except this time, Espinosa hit a single. Kershaw retired the next two batters. Trea Turner hit a grounder that Seager retrieved but could not get out of his glove in time. The traffic brought Roberts to the mound for the first time all day. It would not be his last trip, but it was the one filled with the most hope.
Roberts spoke with Kershaw for only a moment. Then he walked back to his dugout, content to let Kershaw face Harper. The pair dueled for eight pitches, with a 1-2 fastball nearly catching the outside corner and a 2-2 curveball nearly catching the inside corner. Umpire Tom Hallion called balls on both, and Harper eventually walked.
“There was one that was a strike,” Kershaw said. “He’s a really good hitter. You don’t need to give him any more strikes.”
Kershaw was done. He departed with the lead after “leaving it all out there,” Roberts said. He had thrown 110 pitches, struck out 11 and aided the offense with his bat. But his teammates could not pick him up. His manager also invited criticism with his bullpen deployment.
When the inning began, Baez was warming in the bullpen. Avilan soon joined him. Roberts opted for those two over Joe Blanton, his best right-handed reliever besides Kenley Jansen, and Grant Dayon, his best left-handed reliever. Dayton had pitched the previous two days. Blanton picked up five outs on Monday.
So it was up to Baez. Earlier in the week, Roberts insisted he did not care about Baez’s playoff history. He soon might. Baez threw one pitch. It hit Werth. A run scored.
In came Avilan. He shuttled from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City all summer, but performed well enough in September to earn a spot on the playoff roster. He was now set to face Murphy, the finest batter on the Nationals, a left-hander hitter with a swing like saccharine. Murphy did not waste time, poking a fastball into center to knot the score.
“Man,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said, “that was a hard-fought game on both sides.”
The last laugh belonged to the Dodgers. Treinen hit Toles with a slider. Ethier shot a 96-mph fastball through the left side of the infield. Utley splashed a slider into the outfield grass to take the lead, unfazed by the 1-2 count or the pressure of the moment. “You’re in that situation a lot over the course of the season,” he said.
The ballpark shook. Inside the dugout, Roberts raised both his fists to the sky. Standing at first base, Utley put his hands on his hips and stared. A reporter flashed a picture of Utley’s grimace to Turner afterward. “That’s pretty good for him,” Turner cracked.
The Dodgers planned to fly to Washington on Wednesday, and the group needed to unwind. J.P. Howell hugged Kershaw and thanked him. “That’s the best you’ve ever battled,” Howell told his teammate.
As the players filtered out into the night, Roberts made the rounds. Utley was one of the last to leave. Roberts pulled up a chair beside him.
“I’m spent, dude,” Roberts said.
Utley leaned back and stared at his manager, a man only seven years his senior.
“I am, too,” Utley said. “I am, too.”