It started with a light drizzle on a mild 78-degree Monday night in the Nation’s Capital. As the fifth inning rolled around, a robust wind picked up and the rain roared down upon the 36,487 in attendance at Nationals Park.
The storm wasn’t supposed to arrive until after midnight, but it crashed down upon the Dodgers with one thunderous swing from the longest tenured National in team history.
On September 1, 2005, the Washington Nationals selected third baseman Ryan Zimmerman from nearby Virginia with the fourth overall pick in the MLB Draft. He was the first player selected in the team’s history. 15 years later, he would help rewrite it.
The Dodgers usually win games like this. The Nationals do not, but as the rain poured down on the “W” logo in straightaway centerfield, Zimmerman would change that narrative with one swing.
Zimmerman delivered the biggest hit of the Nationals’ season when he smashed a 97 MPH fastball from Pedro Baez off that logo in center to give Washington a decisive 6-1 win in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
As the ball flew over the fence, Baez’s head dropped into his hands like a wilted flower. The Dodgers postseason demons reappeared, as thoughts turned to a do-or-die Game 5 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.
In the spring of 2015, Rich Hill and Max Scherzer were relaxing in West Palm Beach ready to begin another baseball season. Hill had just signed a minor league deal with the Washington Nationals, and was competing for a spot in the rotation. Hill did not make the Opening Day roster, and was released by Washington two months later, vanquished to the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball where he would resurrect his career with the Long Island Ducks.
As fate would have it, the two friends who met in Florida would inexplicably have their paths cross repeatedly over the next five years. First, against each other in a winner-take-all Game 5 in the 2016 NLDS. On Monday they met again on the same field with multiple ramifications on the line. A win for Hill and the Dodgers would advance to their fourth straight NLCS. A win for Scherzer, and the Nationals would force a Game 5 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night.
“You want to play the best because at the end of the day, I feel like it’s much more gratifying to go against somebody at the top of their game,” said Hill who remembers Scherzer as intense and competitive from their time together. “Looking across the way, when you talk about guys that you really enjoy watching pitch, he’s definitely up there for me.”
Hill’s journey to this moment was more turbulent than Scherzer’s. Hill had to reinvent himself as a pitcher just to make an MLB roster, and injury-plagued season in 2019 put Hill on the outside looking in of a spot on the playoff roster in early September.
“Obviously, I put in time and the effort to get back. I worked really hard with our training staff,” said Hill of his rehabilitation regimen. “Those guys put in a lot of time and effort to make sure that the program that I was on was correct for getting back and being efficient on the hill and getting back to not where I was, but just getting back to where everything felt comfortable enough and strong enough to go out there and compete. It was just something I wanted. This is what I have a love for…I’m not going to say it was easy, but there was never a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t get back.”
With less than two weeks to go in the season, Rich Hill, finally proved he could pitch in the MLB Playoffs during the final game of the regular season.
“His last start against San Francisco,” said Dave Roberts of when he knew Hill had enough to make the NLDS roster. “It looked good, came out of it well, the side session after that, trainers, Rich, his own words, his confidence level, my eyes seeing how it looks, all that gave us the confidence that he deserves to make this start and we feel good about whatever length he can give us.”
So Hill was called upon in Game 4 to close out the series and christen the visiting clubhouse with a champagne celebration. Unfortunately for Hill, things didn’t go according to plan.
Maybe it was Hill’s lack of command, or Doug Eddings strike zone, but the soon-to-be 40-year-old left-hander struggled to find the plate, and after issuing three walks in the third inning, he was undone by a sacrifice fly off the bat of Anthony Rendon that leveled the score.
Meanwhile, the man they call “Mad Max,” lived up to the billing. Every bit as intense and competitive as advertised, the Nationals’ irrefutable ace dominated the Dodgers over seven spectacular innings.
Scherzer extinguished the Dodgers lineup that was saturated with lefties to weaken him. For over three hours, he flummoxed every hitter he faced with a devastating combination of fastball, slider, and change-up.
After a swing-and-miss slider in the first inning, Scherzer tried to surprise Turner with a 96 MPH fastball. He missed high, and Turner sent the pitch into the Dodgers’ bullpen—almost in the identical spot he did in Game 3—to give Los Angeles an early 1-0 lead.
But that would be the only run the Dodgers would get off Scherzer. The 35-year-old right-hander allowed just one run, on four scattered hits with three walks and seven strikeouts in the victory. If Scherzer is Washington’s Batman, then he will now pass the baton to his Robin, Stephen Strasburg, in the decisive Game 5 at Dodger Stadium.
It took the Dodgers five games to dispatch of the Nationals in the NLDS in 2016. Kenley Jansen pitched three innings of relief, and Clayton Kershaw earned the first save of his career in the win.
Dave Roberts was in his inaugural year as manager of the Dodgers during that season, and Game 5 was his first taste of an all hands on deck, winner-take-all playoff game.
“That game was crazy,” Roberts said multiple times when reminiscing about the experience. “I don’t look forward to revisiting that one.”
On Wednesday, he’ll have to.