Cardinals’ Hit or Miss Offense Is Missing Again

ST. LOUIS — The baseball schedule is so unforgiving that most teams, by the end, know just who they are. The St. Louis Cardinals are still searching, and they are running out of time.

In the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals, the Cardinals lost twice and scored just one run. A pinch-hitter, Jose Martinez, was 2 for 2. The rest of the hitters were 2 for 55.

“It’s just pretty obvious,” said Paul Goldschmidt, who singled to break up Max Scherzer’s no-hitter in the seventh inning of Game 2. “You score one run, you’re not going to win many games.”

If you score 10 in the first inning, you have a much better shot. The Cardinals did that in their division series clincher in Atlanta, coasting to a 13-1 victory. But the Nationals have unplugged their offense and hidden the power cord.

“That’s kind of been the story of our season, really,” first baseman Matt Carpenter said. “Our offense, at times, has been hit or miss. We’ve had stretches where we’ve struggled to score and we’ve had stretches where we’ve just poured it on. Hopefully we can get one where we pour it on here in the next couple of days, get some confidence back and get some guys rolling.”

But the Cardinals could not solve the soft-throwing Anibal Sanchez on Friday night, or the hard-throwing Scherzer in the shadows on Saturday afternoon. Now Stephen Strasburg awaits them in Game 3 on Monday at Nationals Park, with Patrick Corbin to follow in Game 4.

Strasburg has 21 strikeouts and one walk in 15 October innings, with a 2.40 earned run average. Corbin, a two-time All-Star, was 8-2 with a 2.40 E.R.A. at home in the regular season.

“I feel like we’re road warriors,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “We’ve found our niche on the road; we know how to play on the road. We know the pitchers we’re up against, the odds we’re up against. But that’s what we’re all about. That’s what we love.”

The Cardinals are an unlikely underdog. They are playing in their 10th N.L.C.S. in the last 20 seasons, and their 11 World Series titles are second only to the Yankees’ 27. But they missed the playoffs the last three seasons as the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers took over the N.L. Central, and needed an all-around effort to return.

“This year, we have a complete team that is doing a lot of different things well that we haven’t been doing the last few years,” starter Adam Wainwright said. “This year we played much better defense, this year we ran the bases much better, this year our starting pitching was a little better, this year our bullpen was certainly much better. We have more thump in the middle of our lineup than we’ve had in years.”

The thumpers — Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong and Marcell Ozuna — combined for 94 homers this season. But the Cardinals had only 210 homers over all and 764 runs scored this season, both figures ranking last among teams with winning records.

That sets these Cardinals apart from their last championship team in 2011. Those Cardinals were a wild-card team, but they led the N.L. in runs scored and beat three Philadelphia Phillies aces — Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay — in a first-round upset. They battered another ace, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Zack Greinke, in the N.L.C.S., and ravaged the Texas Rangers’ bullpen in the World Series.

This time, the Nationals’ aces have dispatched the Cardinals with ease, and relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson — who returned to save Game 2 after missing the opener for the birth of his daughter — have been sharp this month.

The Cardinals have hope in Game 3 because of their starter, Jack Flaherty, a 23-year-old right-hander with a 1.13 E.R.A., postseason included, since the All-Star break. The rookie Dakota Hudson, a 16-game winner in the regular season, will start Game 4.

“This series is far from over, and we have a guy going that’s really the best guy in baseball in the second half, undisputed, going for us on Monday,” Manager Mike Shildt said, referring to Flaherty. “I’m very optimistic, still, about this series.”

This is how the Cardinals scripted it, after all, managing their young pitchers’ workloads so they would be available in October. It was a deliberate effort not to repeat the Nationals’ infamous decision to shut down Strasburg before the 2012 playoffs to protect his long-term health. The Cardinals beat Washington in the division series that fall, and it took four more tries for the Nationals to advance to the N.L.C.S.

Now that they have, they seem eager to make it a short stay. They could be just two games away from the World Series, which has not come to Washington since 1933.

“The atmosphere in the playoffs at Nationals Park has been incredible,” Scherzer said. “They come out and they go nuts from the first pitch. So I have a feeling it’s even going to be more crazy given what we have done, and really our first postseason win as an organization. I think it means a lot to everybody in D.C.”

Unless the Cardinals quickly solve Scherzer’s fellow pitchers, the District can start planning the party.

Nationals Pitching Puts an Old-School Tactic on the Cutting Edge

ST. LOUIS — For all the new wisdom in baseball, some theories stay timeless. One in particular guides Mike Rizzo in building annual contenders for the Washington Nationals.

“I was taught early in my scouting and G.M. career that once you have starting pitching, anything is possible,” said Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, “and if you don’t have it, nothing is possible.”

In the first two games of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium, even no-hitters seemed possible from the Nationals’ starters. Anibal Sanchez carried one into the eighth inning of Game 1 and Max Scherzer into the seventh inning of Game 2. After Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nationals headed home with a two-games-to-none lead and a chance to clinch their first trip to the World Series in Washington.

Sanchez blanked the Cardinals for seven and two-thirds innings in Game 1, and Scherzer for seven innings in Game 2. Both allowed only one hit. The Cardinals will not get much of a break in the next two games, when the Nationals will start Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, who combined to go 32-13 this season.

“Starting pitching is absolutely our biggest strength,” reliever Sean Doolittle said on Friday, adding that Sanchez’s aggressive approach had a calming influence on the bullpen. “They absolutely set the tone for this team.”

That is just how Rizzo likes it. He started his professional career as a minor league infielder in 1982, a year in which 90 major leaguers threw the minimum 162 innings required for the earned-run average title. This season — in a league with four more teams — that total had dropped to 61.

But four of those pitchers are members of the Nationals. Another four pitch for the Cardinals and four others for the Houston Astros.

The Yankees had just one qualified pitcher this season (Masahiro Tanaka), but still: With three of the four remaining teams built around sturdy rotations, is it fair to spot a trend? Could durable starters working deep into playoff games be the new — old — way to win in October?

“I don’t know; I think it was just the guys that are doing it,” Scherzer said. “Next year it will be the bullpens. The year after that it will be starters. There’s just so many ways to win baseball games through pitching, and we have seen it over the years.”

We may never again see a series like the 2005 American League Championship Series, when the Chicago White Sox got four complete games and used their bullpen for only two outs in a five-game series en route to a World Series title. But on consecutive days in these playoffs, Walker Buehler threw a career-high 117 pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gerrit Cole worked eight innings for the Astros and Sanchez and Scherzer flirted with no-hitters.

Through two games of the N.L.C.S. — even before the opener of the A.L.C.S. — starters had already lasted at least seven innings 11 times this postseason. That was two more times than the total for the entire 2018 postseason, and one more than in 2017.

“When you’ve got incredible pitchers out on the mound — Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and those guys — if you have an ability like that, you want to get those guys out there as much as you can,” said the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright, who lost to Scherzer on Saturday but has worked 15 innings in his two starts this month. “When you’re just looking at one month to live forever, you’re talking about every game as a must-win. That’s kind of how teams are approaching it, and they’re putting their best athletes on the field.”

The Nationals have already used Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin in relief this postseason, as the Red Sox did with all five of their starters in their championship run last October. That can be risky for the long-term — most of those Boston starters fell apart this season — but in the moment, it is probably the smart play, with plenty of historical support.

Using starters as relievers is nothing new in the postseason. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn did it long before baseball added layers of playoffs ahead of the World Series, and many modern starters have done it, from Verlander to Noah Syndergaard to Cole Hamels.

The strategy can backfire — as it did with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the division series finale against Washington on Wednesday — but the possibility of seeing the best pitchers more often adds extra sizzle to October.

“In the five-game series, you’ve got to get creative and you’ve got to take the ball at every single chance you can get,” Scherzer said. “In the seven-game series, the way you’re set up, this is more like the regular season.”

The Nationals and the Cardinals both plan to use four starters in this series, as most teams do in the best-of-seven format. For Washington, that means three pitchers in Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin whose combined salaries total $525 million — and Sanchez, who signed last December for two years and $19 million.

Sanchez, 35, has been in the majors since 2006, when he threw a no-hitter as a rookie for the Marlins. Friday’s effort was not even the first time he had allowed no hits when starting a L.C.S. opener: He also did it in 2013, for Detroit in Boston, but he lasted only six innings. Sanchez threw 116 pitches that night, and the Tigers’ bullpen lost the no-hitter in the ninth.

This time Sanchez nearly took care of things on his own, baffling the Cardinals with an array of off-speed pitches — including one type of changeup his teammates call “the Butterfly” — and a fastball that rarely tops 91 miles an hour. When first baseman Ryan Zimmerman made a diving catch on a liner to start the eighth, Sanchez expected to finish the gem.

“I think that I had it, for sure,” he said, adding that a similar highlight had preserved his no-hitter for the Marlins. “Zimmerman, he caught that ball and I said: ‘O.K., always behind a no-hitter, a good play has to happen.’ And I said, ‘O.K., I had it.’”

Alas, two batters later, Jose Martinez ruined the script by lining a 1-2 changeup to center for a clean hit. Paul Goldschmidt ended Scherzer’s bid on Saturday with a line-drive single to left to start the seventh. But the games emphatically illustrated why the Nationals invested in Scherzer in free agency in 2015 and in Sanchez last winter.

“When he’s on, he’s carving people up,” Rizzo said of Sanchez. “He’s hitting four quadrants of the strike zone with three or four pitches. He’ll invent a pitch if he has to during the game. His dexterity on the mound, that allows him, with finger pressure, to make different movements on fastballs. I saw him pitch so many times, we knew him intimately. It was a pretty easy choice to go after him when we needed another starter.”

Perhaps veteran starters will command more attention in free agency this winter, after pitchers from last year’s frigid market like Sanchez, Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, Texas’ Lance Lynn and Houston’s Wade Miley all pitched well on contracts that each totaled $30 million or less.

Rizzo, for his part, only knows that it works for his team, which stood two victories from its first World Series after Sanchez’s magic act.

“My job isn’t to show the industry anything — it’s just to put together the team that fits for us,” Rizzo said. “Over the years we’ve put together quality clubs that compete for championships each year, and starting pitching has been our backbone.”

The Inevitable Cardinals Meet the Suddenly Clutch Nationals

ST. LOUIS — His team’s hometown is a hotbed of espionage, but even by Washington standards, this is a bold surveillance operation. While the Nationals face the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, one of their top scouts will be staying at the home of the manager of a potential World Series opponent.

The scout is Bob Boone, and the manager is his son, Aaron, who guided the Yankees to the American League Championship Series. Bob Boone, a vice president and senior adviser for the Nationals, will track the Yankees’ games against the Houston Astros in the A.L.C.S. He will do it by commuting to the games in New York from Aaron’s home in Connecticut.

“I’ll ride in with him; I won’t even need a car,” Bob Boone said in Los Angeles late Wednesday night, after the Nationals had roared back to win Game 5 of their division series at Dodger Stadium. “But he never talks too much about baseball, anyway. And he’s on the stat-side, big-time — and that just starts an argument with me.”

The Nationals took a first step to the World Series on Friday, humbling the Cardinals, 2-0, in Game 1 of the N.L.C.S. at Busch Stadium. Anibal Sanchez held the Cardinals hitless until Jose Martinez’s pinch-hit single with two outs in the eighth. He left the game after that, but Sean Doolittle preserved the one-hitter.

For the first game, at least, the Nationals looked as comfortable in a new setting as Boone might have expected. Boone is 71, and a memorable series from his playing career has particular relevance to his current team.

Boone was the catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, who won the best-of-five N.L.C.S. in 1980 after losing that series in 1976, 1977 and 1978. The victory, a five-game thriller with the Astros, unburdened a roster that had come to be defined by October futility. The Phillies went on to beat Kansas City for their first World Series title.

The Nationals also seek their first championship, and the opportunity was hard-earned. They lost the best-of-five division series four times before their triumph over the Dodgers.

“It’s kind of the same thing, blowing a bunch of them,” Boone said. “We had lost three playoffs, and that Houston series was ridiculous. When we got past that, we knew we were going to beat them. We just relaxed, and we knew we’d beat these guys. We were a clutch team, just like these guys.”

The Nationals? Clutch? Until this month, they had the opposite reputation. But then came their comebacks in the wild-card game against Milwaukee and the N.L.D.S. clincher in Los Angeles. Both times, the Nationals trailed by two runs in the eighth inning while facing an All-Star left-hander. Both times, they rallied to win.

“Keep fighting,” said Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ star third baseman. “I think that’s the story of, maybe, this organization. We have always either done really, really well and then came up short, or we had been plagued with injuries and had to continue to fight out of a hole that we dug ourselves in the beginning of the year. So we just wanted to keep believing in ourselves and not worry about what people outside of our locker room were saying.”

Rendon scored the go-ahead run off the Brewers’ Josh Hader in the wild card game, after right fielder Trent Grisham misplayed Juan Soto’s two-run single. On Wednesday, Rendon homered off Clayton Kershaw to pull the Nationals within a run, and Soto homered on the next pitch to tie it.

With one on in the 10th inning, Rendon doubled off Joe Kelly, who walked Soto intentionally before serving up the most seismic hit in Nationals’ history: Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead grand slam. Kendrick stayed hot in Game 1, doubling and scoring the Nationals’ first run, and driving in their second run with a single.

But it was fitting that Rendon and Soto helped set up Wednesday’s big blast. They were the only set of qualified teammates in the majors who both had a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage in the regular season. They combined to hit .343 in the division series, and the rest of the Nationals hit .198.

“They’re tough — and they’re tough because they’re plate-disciplined more than anything,” said Matt Wieters, the Cardinals’ backup catcher and a former National, referring to Rendon and Soto. “They’re not going to help you out.”

The Cardinals’ two sluggers, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, were also at their best in their five-game division series with the Atlanta Braves, both hitting .429 with two homers. Catcher Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ emotional leader and pitching whisperer, forced the finale with tour de force in Game 4, tying it with a single in the eighth and winning it with a sacrifice fly in the 10th.

The Cardinals are playing in their 10th N.L.C.S. in the last 20 seasons, and Molina has been there for the last eight. He is seeking his fifth trip to the World Series.

“You know you have someone back there who has probably seen just about any situation you can imagine in a baseball game unfold,” said the Cardinals starter for Game 1, Miles Mikolas. “He’s been there, he’s seen it and he’s seen it from the catcher’s viewpoint, which is probably the best one to have. The whole team feeds off that.”

The Nationals did not attempt a stolen base against the Dodgers, but they tied with the Cardinals for the N.L. lead in steals in the regular season, so Molina’s arm could be an important weapon. He will work with starters Adam Wainwright in Game 2, Jack Flaherty in Game 3 and Dakota Hudson in Game 4.

The Nationals have not announced their rotation beyond Sanchez and Max Scherzer in Game 2, but they will surely lean heavily on Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, who with Scherzer have worked 36 of the team’s 54 innings this postseason. All three have also appeared in relief.

“They have three of the best starting pitchers in baseball,” said Walker Buehler, who started for the Dodgers on Wednesday. “Any time you can throw those three guys out there, you’ve got a chance.”

The Nationals have had many other chances to get to this round. They squandered all of them, but now they have broken through. With four more victories, they might be able to put a certain scout’s reconnaissance to use.

October Ghosts Come Early for Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — You could see the red taillights in the parking lots, out beyond the zigzag pavilion roof at Dodger Stadium, in the bottom of the 10th inning Wednesday night. It was the same scene in 1988, in the first game of the World Series, when the Dodgers trailed going into their final at-bat.

Those fans missed the famous Kirk Gibson home run that propelled the Dodgers to their last championship. These fans missed a quiet 1-2-3 inning, a pointless replay review, and a throng of delirious Washington Nationals celebrating their first trip to the National League Championship Series.

The Nationals were due for a night like this. Since their breakthrough season in 2012, they had won more games than every other major league team except the Dodgers, yet had never survived the division series. In the same time frame, the Dodgers had won four division series, and twice captured the N.L.C.S.

Now they are out, dazed and discouraged by a 7-3 loss in 10 excruciating innings in Game 5. The Nationals will face the St. Louis Cardinals for the right to crown a new N.L. champion — and the Dodgers will have more free time than usual in October.

“You’re thinking about how you’re supposed to be still playing,” reliever Kenley Jansen said. “You just don’t know what to do right now. It’s a shocking moment, and it’s not the way we planned it.”

Jansen saved 33 of the Dodgers’ franchise-record 106 victories this season. But he also blew eight save chances, and he is not the same force he was for most of the Dodgers’ seven-year run as division champions. Neither is Clayton Kershaw.

Kershaw served up homers to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to start the eighth inning, tying the game, 3-3. The Nationals won it off Joe Kelly, loading the bases on a walk by Adam Eaton, a double by Rendon, an intentional walk by Soto and a grand slam by Howie Kendrick.

“Some things are just destined to happen,” Kendrick said. “I truly believe that, and I think a lot of things lead up to moments like this. For some reason, you just can’t explain them. It’s almost like it was meant to be.”

Kendrick, a former Dodger, made the final out the last time the Dodgers lost in the division series, to the Mets in 2015. This time he took a star turn, and although Kelly gave up his homer, Kershaw took the blame for creating the tie in the first place.

Summoned to relieve Walker Buehler with two outs, two on and a two-run lead in the seventh, Kershaw fanned Eaton with a slider, the pitch that made him a star. But when he returned for the eighth, the slider deserted him: Rendon pulled a low one for his homer, and Soto drilled a hanger deep into the right field bleachers.

Kershaw crouched on the mound, felled again by postseason misery. For Kershaw in October, the ballpark might as well be a haunted mansion, the mound a bubbling caldron of witch’s brew. He cannot escape his ghosts.

“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason, I understand that,” Kershaw said in the clubhouse later. “Nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling. It really is. But I’m not going to hang my head.”

In 32 career postseason appearances, Kershaw is 9-11 with a 4.43 earned run average. He has had clutch moments, including a save in Washington to seal Game 5 of this round in 2016, and a win in his first World Series start in 2017.

But for a certain Hall of Famer — three Cy Young Awards, a Most Valuable Player Award, a 2.44 regular-season E.R.A. — autumn failure is a maddening tradition.

“Letting down the guys in the clubhouse, that’s the hardest part every year,” Kershaw said. “When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame for it, it’s not fun.”

Teammates consoled Kershaw by his locker, with hugs and whispered words of encouragement. Will Smith, the rookie catcher, said he told Kershaw how much he looked up to him, how he admired his competitive drive. Rich Hill, the veteran starter, insisted Kershaw should not blame himself.

“No — we wouldn’t be here without him,” said Hill, who paused to collect himself. “Ultimate respect for him. This means so much to everybody in this locker room. That’s the tough part. People say it’s just a game. It’s a lot more than that.”

Manager Dave Roberts was harshly criticized last October — even in a tweet from President Trump — for his pitching decisions in the World Series. He will face scrutiny again for the way he managed Game 5. His lefty specialist, Adam Kolarek, never pitched, and he stayed too long with Kelly, who rarely works more than one inning.

Roberts said he let Kelly face Kendrick because he thought he could induce a ground ball. Kelly said he tried, but his 97-mile-an-hour fastball caught too much of the plate. As for Kershaw, Roberts said he trusted a pitcher he called the best of his generation.

“I feel that my job is to put guys in the best position to have success, and if it doesn’t work out there’s always going to be second-guessing,” Roberts said. “And I’ve got no problem wearing the brunt of that.”

Kershaw said he had no blueprint for absorbing another empty October. He does so every fall, but this loss, perhaps, felt different.

“It might linger for a while,” Kershaw said. “I might not get over it, I don’t know. But spring training’s going to come. I’m going to have to be ready to pitch and do my job as best I can.”

The Dodgers were trying to become the first team since the 1923 Yankees to reach a third consecutive World Series after losing two in a row. They believed they had the roster to do it, and their regular season validated that faith.

But history remembers the teams that own October, and that team — year after year, for decades now — is not the Dodgers.

“We all grew so close as a group, and we all knew what we had,” infielder Max Muncy said. “We know that we’re better than what we showed out there. That’s how it ends.”

Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer Lift Nationals Past Dodgers

WASHINGTON — Ryan Zimmerman was the first player ever drafted by the Washington Nationals, with the fourth overall choice in 2005. He had starred at the University of Virginia, but this was more than a hometown selection. It was a sound baseball pick that gave the team its first homegrown star.

“He’s been here the whole time,” said Max Scherzer, the Nationals’ star right-hander. “He’s given everything to this organization, from beginning to end, staying through the bad times and the good times.”

Zimmerman made his debut at age 20, in a game that included Julio Franco, who is now 61 years old, and John Smoltz and Chipper Jones, who are now in the Hall of Fame. He hit his first career homer at Shea Stadium, and his second at R.F.K. Stadium. None of his first seven Nationals teams finished with a winning record, a stretch of futility that ended with the first of their four National League East titles in 2012.

At 35, Zimmerman is coming to the end of his $135 million contract and wants to keep playing. But he often struggles with injuries and knows nothing is certain. On the field in Los Angeles last weekend, during a tense moment in his team’s N.L. division series against the Dodgers, he turned to the first base umpire and said, “Whenever I’m done, this is what I’m going to miss.”

The occasion then was a bullpen appearance by Scherzer, the snarling ace who struck out the side in relief to help send the series to Nationals Park tied, one-all. Two games later, it heads back to Dodger Stadium tied again, largely because of Scherzer and Zimmerman.

Scherzer throttled the Dodgers for seven steely innings on Monday, and Zimmerman broke the game open with a three-run homer to center field in the fifth. The Nationals avoided elimination with a 6-1 victory, setting up a matchup of aces in Game 5.

Walker Buehler versus Stephen Strasburg with Kershaw probably available in the pen — I mean, this is why you play the game,” Zimmerman said. “This is what we live for.”

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw will indeed be available in relief, but Scherzer will not. He fired 109 pitched on just two days of rest in Game 4, holding the Dodgers to four hits and a run with seven strikeouts. He could feel his arm angle dropping from fatigue in the seventh, he said, and his next pitch will be in the N.L. Championship Series, if the Nationals survive.

“My arm is hanging right now,” Scherzer said. “That pushed me all the way to the edge and then some. I can’t imagine any scenario where I’m pitching.”

Strasburg stymied the Dodgers in Game 2, and he has given up one earned run in nine innings this postseason, with no walks and 14 strikeouts. But Buehler has also been an October stalwart; in his last two postseason appearances, including Game 3 of last year’s World Series, he has thrown 13 shutout innings and allowed just three hits.

“I think the thing that’s kind of lost in playoff baseball is that it’s really fun,” Buehler said. “The pressure and things like that, if you spin it in your head the right way, it can make it more fun.”

Facing Scherzer could not have been much fun for the Dodgers, who started two rookie left-handed hitters — Matt Beaty and Gavin Lux — to try to get a matchup advantage. No such luck: Both came up in the second and fourth innings and could not advance a runner from second. Lux ended the fourth with a swinging third strike, chasing a fastball well above the zone.

Scherzer was only getting stronger. He had given up a homer to Justin Turner in the first inning — a long one, over the left field bullpen — but struck out the side in the fifth. By then the Dodgers were well into their bullpen, and the Nationals’ offense took advantage.

Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts was destined to make this a bullpen game because starter Rich Hill had been limited by recent injuries. That style can work when relievers are at their best, flummoxing lineups with different angles and pitches. The problem comes when one pitcher has an off night and blows up the plan.

So it was with Julio Urias on Monday. He gave up singles to three of his five hitters, with Anthony Rendon’s breaking a 1-1 tie. Zimmerman followed with his blast off Pedro Baez, his first home run of the postseason and just his seventh of the season.

“In those moments, I take a look real quick at the dugout,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “That’s what fires me up, is the guys, because they were battling hard. And when those big moments come, you can see it in their faces. It’s huge.”

Scherzer carried the lead through the seventh, and Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson collected the last six outs. There would be at least one more game for the Nationals and for Zimmerman, another chance to finally advance to the N.L.C.S.

For Zimmerman, the old days are long gone, and not worth revisiting. The Nationals have come too far to look back.

“We’re so far past that now,” Zimmerman said. “I think it’s kind of made me who I am. A lot of these guys didn’t even ever go through that kind of stuff. So I think it’s a good thing — we’ve moved on to where we’re expected to make the playoffs every year, we’re expected to compete.”

For the Nationals, playoff competition has always ended early and painfully. Zimmerman and Scherzer earned the chance for Strasburg to change that on Wednesday.

“Especially when you’ve played a little bit longer, you start to realize how hard it is to get there,” Strasburg said. “All you can really do is just give it everything you have.”

Max Scherzer Stifles the Dodgers in a Rare Relief Outing

LOS ANGELES — Max Scherzer said he had not even worked up a sweat when he trotted out of the Washington Nationals’ bullpen late Friday night. He’s used to warming up when the sun is still out, after all.

But with the Nationals up by two runs over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of their National League division series, Washington Manager Dave Martinez turned to Scherzer, their veteran starter, to protect the lead in the eighth inning.

The strategy worked. Again.

The bullpen door swinging open has been a source of trepidation for the Nationals this season, as their relievers had the worst E.R.A. (5.66) in the majors. The sight of Scherzer running out undoubtedly brought different emotions.

Scherzer was dominant, striking out the side in the eighth inning on 14 pitches — including a 99 m.p.h. fastball — to help the Nationals win, 4-2, and even the best-of-five series at one game apiece as the teams head to Washington for Games 3 and 4.

Friday was the fourth time Scherzer — a three-time Cy Young Award winner — has pitched out of the bullpen in the postseason, but he has had mixed results: 1-1 with a 6.75 E.R.A. Against the Dodgers, though, the 35-year-old Scherzer pitched like a true setup man.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said of Scherzer pitching the eighth.

It was not the first time Nationals Manager Dave Martinez used one of his star starters out of the bullpen — Strasburg did so in Washington’s wild card game victory on Tuesday — but going to Scherzer this early in the series was a drastic move.

“It’s what the team needs,” Scherzer said. “When your number gets called, you’ve got to go out there and produce.”

Strasburg started on Friday, allowing just one run on three hits and striking out 10 in six innings to earn the win. He lowered his career postseason E.R.A. to 0.64. It was a role reversal from Tuesday’s wild card game, when Scherzer started and Strasburg followed with three shutout innings of relief.

Then Strasburg started Friday after only two full days of rest.

“I’m very routine-oriented and I would say my younger self would be a little bit alarmed by it,” the 31-year-old Strasburg said. But now, he added, “it’s just another challenge.”

Starting pitching is the top priority in the postseason, but the Nationals have used their formidable starters in relief to work around a shaky bullpen.

“Those guys are a big part of why we are here,” Martinez said of his relievers. “I’ve said this before, they have had their struggles, but they understand it’s one game, we play for one game. Our biggest emphasis all year was to go 1-0, and now it’s that time.”

The series is tied at one game each, and the teams now head to Nationals Park with the possibility of Scherzer starting Game 3 on Sunday. “Whenever they want me to pitch, I’ll pitch,” he said after Friday’s game.

Scherzer was so good and efficient that he looked like he could have continued in the ninth inning, but Martinez told Scherzer before the game he wouldn’t do that. Still, the manager considered it.

“Trust me, I was biting my lip, scratching my head,” Martinez said.

Martinez opted for his closer, Daniel Hudson, for the ninth. He got the job done, but it was an adventure after Justin Turner smacked a double and Martinez opted to intentionally walk Max Muncy with two outs. Hudson walked Will Smith — who represented the go-ahead run — to load the bases, and then struck out Corey Seager to earn the save.

Dodgers batters struck out 17 times in the loss — 13 of which were at the hands of Strasburg and Scherzer.

One day earlier, Los Angeles starter Walker Buehler was dominant in powering the Dodgers to a 6-0 Game 1 victory, but the Nationals didn’t crumble in Game 2. Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers struggled early in his start Friday, allowing three runs in six innings and hitting two batters. Strasburg pitched with a 3-0 cushion after two innings.

The rest of the Nationals marveled at the way Scherzer and Strasburg were helping in different ways, but they were not surprised.

“They’ve been doing that all year,” Hudson said. “Stephen was out there dominating. Max out of the pen is a different animal. He’s dominant, too. Most of the time when they have that adrenaline going late in the game, it’s fun to watch.”

Martinez said he would wait until Saturday to see how Scherzer feels before making a decision on a Game 3 starter. If not Scherzer, Martinez will turn to Anibal Sanchez.

Either way, Strasburg and Scherzer have already carried a heavy load, and in unfamiliar roles, to keep the Nationals in the series against a Dodgers team that has punished opposing pitchers all year.

“I think everybody would do that,” Scherzer said. “It’s not just us. There’s 25 guys in here that play at that same level. From the outside looking in, maybe it looks like that but this clubhouse we’ve got a really good group here and everyone is ready to lay it on the line for each other.”

Dodgers Cruise Past the Nationals in Game 1

LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers overpowered the Nationals on the mound and at the plate, extending the dominance that led to a franchise-record 106 victories in the regular season right on into the playoffs.

Walker Buehler allowed one hit over six innings, Max Muncy drove in three runs and Los Angeles capitalized on mistakes to beat Washington, 6-0, in Game 1 of their National League division series on Thursday night.

“Oh, they’re good. They’re really good,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “That’s why they have been in the postseason so many years in a row.”

Buehler struck out eight, walked three and retired his final seven batters after earning the start over the veterans Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu, whose 2.32 E.R.A. was lowest in the majors this season.

“Walker, time and time again, just knows how to temper, control his emotions and transfer that into the delivery, the execution of pitches,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said.

The Dodgers’ Gavin Lux and Joc Pederson slugged pinch-hit solo homers in the eighth.

Nationals first baseman Howie Kendrick had two grounders roll under his glove, the second leading to the Dodgers’ second run in the fifth.

Washington’s Patrick Corbin stumbled through a rocky first inning. He issued four walks, joining Art Reinhart of the St. Louis Cardinals as the only pitchers to walk that many in the first inning they ever pitched in the postseason.

Reinhart walked four — including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig — in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the 1926 World Series against the Yankees.

“That first inning was the game,” Roberts said. “That really set the tone.”

Corbin walked three in a row with two outs in the 31-pitch inning. Yan Gomes was charged with a passed ball, too, and Muncy drew a free pass with the bases loaded to put the Dodgers in front.

“Walked a lot of guys, chased a lot of bad pitches,” Martinez said. “When you’re walking guys and not hitting, it’s tough to win ballgames.”

Corbin gave up two runs — one earned — and three hits in six innings. The left-hander struck out nine and finished with five walks.

“It just didn’t seem like he had his command,” Muncy said. “We did a really good job of not chasing balls out of the zone.”

Cody Bellinger walked with two outs and scored on an error by Kendrick in the fifth that made it 2-0. Third baseman Anthony Rendon made a diving stop on Chris Taylor’s single down the line, but his throw to first wasn’t in time, and Bellinger went to third.

Muncy’s grounder rolled through Kendrick’s legs for an error, scoring Bellinger, and Taylor got thrown out at the plate to end the inning.

“I wouldn’t change anything about the way I tried to make that play. Just one of those times you just miss it,” Kendrick said. “You never want to let your teammates down or do anything that could give the other team the advantage.”

In the fourth, Muncy singled leading off. Corey Seager followed with a hit that got past a diving Kendrick at first and rolled into right, sending Muncy to third. But then Corbin settled down and retired the next three batters to end the inning.

“Mechanically, was rushing a little bit. Was cutting my fastball,” Corbin said. “Later on, was able to get back to my sinker and everything else felt good after that.”

Muncy added a two-run single with two outs in the seventh, extending the lead to 4-0.

The Nationals loaded the bases in the fourth on three walks by Buehler. He escaped when Asdrubal Cabrera tapped the ball back to the mound and Buehler flipped to first to end the inning.

“From that first throw, he was on point,” Roberts said. “That’s a really good lineup over there and for him to go six, we needed that.”

Juan Soto, who had the key hit in the Nationals’ wild-card win over Milwaukee, singled in the second and Trea Turner doubled in the ninth off Joe Kelly for the Nationals’ only hits.

It was a quiet offensive night for each team’s M.V.P. contender. Rendon, who hit .319 in the regular season, went 0 for 2 with two strikeouts and a walk. Bellinger, a .305 hitter, struck out twice and walked twice.

It was the fourth shutout in eight games between the teams this season, the third by the Dodgers.

Los Angeles won its eighth in a row dating to the regular season. Washington’s nine-game winning streak, including the wild-card victory, ended.

Juan Soto Was the Right Man in the Right Spot

WASHINGTON — The Washington Nationals were four outs from elimination with the bases loaded on Tuesday when a feeling of serenity came over Mike Rizzo, their general manager. Rizzo was watching the National League wild-card game with his senior adviser, Jack McKeon, who is 88 years old. The hitter at the plate, Juan Soto, was 20.

“Right man in the right spot,” Rizzo told McKeon, and a moment later, everything had changed — the game, for sure, but also the sense of dread that stalks this tortured franchise. Soto cleared the bases with a single that skidded past Trent Grisham in right field, lifting the Nationals past the Milwaukee Brewers, 4-3, and into a division series with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

We think we can tweet videos again so here's Juan Soto's game-winning hit and OH MY GOODNESS IT'S EVEN MORE INCREDIBLE THAN WE REMEMBERED.#ChildishBambino // #STAYINTHEFIGHT

— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) October 2, 2019

“That’s the man I wanted up,” Rizzo said later, as his players romped around the soggy, boozy home clubhouse at Nationals Park. “Left on left against a great left-handed pitcher was fine with me — with him. He’s a terrific young man and a really good player, too.”

The Brewers’ left-hander, Josh Hader, had been summoned in the bottom of the eighth for a six-out save. This is precisely what Milwaukee wanted: a two-run lead for an overpowering All-Star who had just posted the best strikeout rate ever by a pitcher with at least 70 innings.

“That was perfect, really,” said Craig Counsell, the Brewers’ manager. “We couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”

Hader fanned 16.4 batters per nine innings this season and had whiffed two in the eighth. But he had also hit a batter and allowed a single and a walk, bringing Soto to the plate. Soto had struck out in his first at-bat, then popped out and fanned again. A veteran teammate, Gerardo Parra, reassured him.

“Hey, the good moment is going to come, so be ready,” Soto said Parra told him. “No matter what happened in the past, just forget about it and keep going.”

The Nationals’ past does not apply to Soto. He was 13 years old in 2012, when the Nationals won their first N.L. East title but blew a two-run lead to St. Louis with one strike to go in the ninth inning of Game 5 in the division series.

By the time Soto signed with Washington — from the Dominican Republic for $1.5 million in July 2015 — the Nationals had lost another division series, to San Francisco in 2014. They fell again in that round in 2016 (to the Dodgers) and 2017 (to the Chicago Cubs).

“I know they always go to the playoffs, they always lose, something like that,” Soto said. “But now we’re here, we try to fight, and we’re going to see how far we’re going to get.”

Soto, now in his second season, helped the Nationals storm back from a 19-31 start by hitting 34 homers with 110 runs batted in, a .401 on-base percentage and a .548 slugging percentage. Only two other players have reached all those numbers at age 20 — Mel Ott for the Giants in 1929 and Alex Rodriguez for Seattle in 1996 — and they did not end those years in the postseason.

“He’s 20 years old, man,” said Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, who turns 36 this week. “I was in college at 20 years old. This guy’s hitting 30 and 100 in the big leagues at 20 years old, playing in the postseason. He’s a joke.”

The Nationals have thrived by developing high-impact stars like Soto, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman, and all played pivotal roles in the eighth.

Strasburg kept the deficit at 3-1 with his third shutout inning, capping his first relief appearance since 2007, when he was a freshman at San Diego State. With two outs and one on, Zimmerman — the first player the Nationals drafted after moving from Montreal in 2005 — punched a broken-bat pinch-hit single to center. Rendon, who only led the majors in R.B.I. this season, then walked to load the bases.

Soto cleared them with help from Grisham, who said he charged too quickly on the hit, which “took a funny hop” on him and rolled away, taking Milwaukee’s season with it.

“It’s not how you want your first playoff game to go,” Grisham said. “We expected to win. There’s all kinds of thoughts and emotions that run through your head. It just kind of stings right now.”

If Soto stung at all from his first playoff game, it was only from Champagne in his eyes. He could be embarking on a postseason with few precedents for his age: Think of Jim Palmer throwing a shutout for Baltimore in the 1966 World Series or Miguel Cabrera leading the Marlins, managed by McKeon, to the title in 2003.

For now, of course, the Nationals’ path is just beginning. They will start Patrick Corbin in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium on Thursday, but are likely to be without Max Scherzer and Strasburg until the series returns here for Game 3 on Sunday.

As the Nationals partied late Tuesday night, those seemed like trivial factors. In their 15th year in town, they had finally earned a postseason celebration. It was long overdue.

“The last five, six years have been a fun time to be a Nats fan here,” Zimmerman said. “We haven’t really been able to get over the hump. Maybe this is it, maybe it isn’t, who knows? All I can say is, we’re a pretty darn fun team to watch.”

With a Strong Foundation, the Nationals Seek a Crowning Achievement

WASHINGTON — When Major League Baseball finally returned here for the 2005 season, this must have been the vision: a perennial winner with a roster of stars in a ballpark that sparked a neighborhood building boom.

“That was absolutely the dream,” said Jim Bowden, the Nationals’ first general manager after their move from Montreal. “When I came over, the team was owned by 30 clubs and run by the commissioner’s office. They wanted to find an owner that had the resources, lived in the D.C. area and had the pockets to build world championship-caliber teams.”

Under the principal owner Ted Lerner, the Nationals have spent lavishly, won consistently and watched new construction rise steadily around Nationals Park. But nervous tension in early autumn is also part of the team’s identity.

The playoffs have come to Nationals Park five times in eight seasons, including on Tuesday with the Milwaukee Brewers coming for the National League wild card game. Yet the Nationals have still never reached the championship series.

“The blueprint’s been pretty impressive,” Bowden said. “The only thing they’re lacking is winning a series and winning a world championship, which they’re still trying to do for Ted.”

This year’s effort seemed doomed through the first 50 games of the season. The Nationals were 19-31 through May 23, yet rallied to become the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to finish with at least 93 victories after falling 12 games under .500. Those Braves beat the Philadelphia A’s in one of the greatest upsets in World Series baseball history.

These Nationals are a hard sell as an underdog. Their payroll of roughly $195 million ranks among the highest in the majors, and their three top starters — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — are signed for a combined $525 million.

The trio was worth the money this season, posting a 43-20 record and a 3.18 earned run average among the three of them. The Nationals outbid the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies last winter for Corbin, signing him for six years and $140 million. The Phillies wound up spending $330 million for 13 years to sign Bryce Harper, the former N.L. most valuable player who spent his first seven season with the Nationals. Harper had a strong year, but weak pitching doomed the Phillies to a .500 record.

ImageThe Nationals earned a home playoff game for the fifth time in eight years. 

CreditWill Newton/Getty Images

Even after Harper’s departure, the Nationals were left with franchise cornerstones to spare. Third baseman Anthony Rendon hit .319 with 34 homers and a major league-high 126 runs batted in, and left fielder Juan Soto nearly matched him, at .282-34-110.

Soto does not turn 21 until Oct. 25 — the day of Game 3 of the World Series — but still put together a season with few precedents. Soto’s .949 on-base-plus slugging percentage made him just the 10th player in major league history with at least a .900 O.P.S. at age 20, joining some of the game’s most prolific hitters: Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams, Cap Anson, Al Kaline, Jimmie Foxx, Mike Trout, Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle.

“I see all that stuff because they show me, and I feel really happy because of all the work I did in the off-season is coming out now, it’s getting paid back,” Soto said. “I feel really happy and really proud of myself, but it’s not over yet.”

Neither, the Nationals hope, is their relationship with Rendon, who is 29 and eligible for free agency after the World Series. The Washington Post reported Monday that in September the team had offered Rendon a seven-year contract worth $210 to $215 million, but Rendon seems almost certain to test the market.

“If you’re giving me the opportunity and saying I’m this close from going to go car shopping from multiple lots, instead of staying in one lot, I mean, what would you do?” Rendon said in July, in a radio interview with 106.7 The Fan.

The Nationals tried a similar strategy with Harper at the end of last season, offering him a 10-year, $300 million contract with deferrals that would have paid Harper until he turned 60. When Harper turned it down, as expected, the Nationals immediately moved on.

The Rendon proposal, at least, is meant to be an opening offer, not a final one, with deferrals to be paid out much sooner. And the Lerner family and General Manager Mike Rizzo have made several deals with Scott Boras, who represents Harper but also Scherzer, Strasburg and Jayson Werth, the former outfielder.

Back in 2010, the Nationals startled the industry with a seven-year, $126 million deal for Werth, who had been a complementary player for the Phillies teams that ruled the N.L. East. But he led the Nationals to first place in his second season, helped the team win three more division crowns, and now has his name in the franchise ring of honor along the upper deck facade.

Four other signs, above the right field bullpen, commemorate the division championships. All of those seasons ended in early October heartbreak. The Nationals were back for more on Tuesday, trying again to complete the vision that brought them here.

Mets Rebound to Beat Nationals and Win Series

WASHINGTON — A night after a brutal loss, the Mets got back to doing what they have since the All-Star break: Winning another series.

Justin Wilson and the bullpen held on this time, the rookie Pete Alonso hit his major league-leading 45th home run and the Mets rebounded to stop the Nationals, 8-4, on Wednesday afternoon.

A day after three Mets relievers were tagged for seven runs in the bottom of the ninth inning in an 11-10 loss to the Nationals, three pitchers combined to close with three and a third scoreless innings.

“That was a tough loss last night,” Manager Mickey Callaway said. “They bounced back well. They came out swinging the bats. We did the job on the mound. That was a good win.”

After Wilson issued a two-out walk to Kurt Suzuki — whose three-run homer won the game Tuesday night — Victor Robles followed with an easy grounder to Amed Rosario. The shortstop tagged second base for the last out, then zipped a relay to first, as if to make sure the Mets really nailed it down.

The Nationals’ lead atop the National League wild-card race was cut to three games over the idle Chicago Cubs. The Mets trail the Cubs by four-and-a-half games.

Wilson Ramos went 0 for 4, ending a 26-game hitting streak that tied for the second longest in Mets history. The slow-footed catcher was barely thrown out by second baseman Howie Kendrick on a grounder in the ninth.

“I went as hard as I can to get that single,” Ramos said. “That was a great play by Kendrick. I’m excited and proud of what I did.”

The Mets have won 12 of 16 series since the All-Star break and went 4-2 on their road trip, taking two of three from both Philadelphia and Washington.

“This was a really awesome road trip for us,” said Alonso, who connected for the second straight day and broke a tie with Mike Trout of the Angels and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger for the big league homer lead. “Taking two series on the road against really tough, in-division teams, it says a lot about this club. We’re going to keep on pushing forward.”

Robinson Cano hit a two-run shot in his first game in a month after being sidelined by a torn left hamstring. Juan Lagares also homered for the Mets, who took a 7-1 lead in the sixth.

Zack Wheeler earned his first victory since Aug. 6. He needed 101 pitches to complete five innings, but allowed just one run.

The Nationals scored three off reliever Jeurys Familia in the sixth to close within 7-4, with Anthony Rendon hitting a two-run double. Luis Avilan, who was part of the ninth-inning collapse the previous night, finished the sixth, Seth Lugo pitched two scoreless innings and Wilson handled the ninth.