MLB playoffs: Nationals' core carries them to Game 4 win vs. Dodgers; can they get over the NLDS hump in Game 5?

Washington -- On Monday, the Washington Nationals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers by a 6-1 final in Game 4 of the National League Divisional Series. Washington's victory sends the series back to Los Angeles for a decisive Game 5, which will take place on Wednesday.  The Nationals owe their Game 4 victory to three actors in particular: starting pitcher Max Scherzer, third baseman Anthony Rendon, and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

Scherzer shoved against a stacked Dodgers lineup and Zimmerman providing the prerequisite Big Moment, a three-run home run to dead center that left the ball lodged beyond the fence.

Consider that a fitting twist, because those three figures comprise a good deal of Nationals history. But one of the things they haven't done -- win a playoff series -- now hinges on what will be the fourth Game 5 situation in franchise history. Remember, the Nationals have five total playoff appearances, meaning almost all their October trips have ended in a Game 5. None of them have been victories.

In 2012, the Nationals carried a 7-5 lead against the St. Louis Cardinals into the ninth inning before closer Drew Storen blew it with a four-spot that cost Washington the game and the series. A few years later, in 2016, the Nationals lost to the Dodgers in somewhat similar fashion -- though this time the four-spot came in the seventh inning, erasing a 1-0 lead and rendering moot the Nationals' second and third runs, scored in the bottom half of the frame. Then came 2017, when the Nationals were again undone by ... a four-run inning in the middle of the game as part of a 9-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs. That inning turned a 4-3 lead into a 7-4 deficit. All of those losses came at home, by the way, making the Nationals nothing if not predictable.

Can this time be different? Well, who knows.

One of the most popular baseball idioms asserts you can't predict it. That's especially true over a nine-inning basis. Another suggests that momentum -- something the Nationals would seem to possess, if such a thing exists -- is only as good as the next day's pitcher. In that case, the Nationals would seem to have a fair chunk on their side in Stephen Strasburg.

Strasburg is coming off one of the best regular-season performances of his career -- 209 innings, a 138 ERA+, and a 4.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- and has dominated in a pair of postseason appearances. First, in the Wild Card Game, Strasburg threw three shutout frames against the Milwaukee Brewers. He held them to a pair of hits and struck out four of the 10 batters he faced. Then, on short rest against the Dodgers in Game 2, he tossed a quality start: six innings, three hits, a run, no walks, and 10 strikeouts. The Nationals won both games.

That it's certain to be an all-hands on deck situation may favor the Nationals, too. The Nationals should be able to call upon basically everyone else on their pitching staff, possibly even Scherzer. Whether they want to or not is another question, but the point is: if manager Dave Martinez wants to limit himself to three or four pitchers -- Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle, and Daniel Hudson -- he can do so without concern about what it means for the following game. To some extent, Martinez has been following this blueprint already in October, now he'll be even more emboldened by the circumstances at hand.

Make no mistake, the Dodgers remain the objective favorite. They were the better club during the regular season by a fair margin, and they'll presumably have Walker Buehler on the mound with Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and a substantially better middle-relief group available. But being the host team and the better regular-season performer doesn't always matter -- not in Game 5 of the NLDS. If it did, the Nationals wouldn't still be looking for their first series victory.

CBS Sports Staff

R.J. Anderson joined CBS Sports in 2016. He previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus, where he contributed to five of the New York Times bestselling annuals. His work has also appeared in Newsweek and... Full Bio

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