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Nationals Defeat Dodgers to Force a Game 5

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

Zimmerman is 35 now, coming to the end of a $135 million contract. He 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 National League 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 Max Scherzer, the snarling Washington 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 and will send another ace, Stephen Strasburg, to the mound for the decisive Game 5 on Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Strasburg, who beat the Dodgers in Game 2, will be pitching on a full four days’ rest. Scherzer had just two days of rest on Monday, but held the Dodgers to four hits and a run, with seven strikeouts.

Zimmerman was here long before the Nationals started hoarding ace starters. They did not have a winning record in any of their first seven seasons, finally climbing to the top of the N.L. East in 2012.

With that perspective, Zimmerman can see this Nationals season for what it is: a triumph. The team started 19-31 but rallied to reach the playoffs, then won a riveting wild-card game to reach the division series for the fifth time.

“This year’s been pretty special for us with the way that we started,” Zimmerman said on Monday. “Not to say that we’re satisfied, I don’t think anyone is satisfied. But any year you can make the playoffs — some people would be hesitant to say it, but I think it’s definitely a good year.”

The Dodgers are also frequent postseason visitors, and they too have felt the sting of repeatedly falling short in the end. But one reason they get so many chances — they have taken the last seven N.L. West crowns — is their steady and seamless integration of rookies. In 2015 it was Joc Pederson, then Corey Seager and Julio Urias in 2016, Cody Bellinger in 2017 and Walker Buehler last season.

That’s one of the things that we cover in our first meeting in spring training,” said the utility man Enrique Hernandez. “We want younger guys to know that it doesn’t matter how good our big league team is, what names you see around the locker room, there’s going to be a lot of guys that are going to have a chance to come up and help us win.”

This year’s playoff roster has four rookies: pitcher Dustin May and a trio of position players who started against Scherzer in Game 4. Manager Dave Roberts put left fielder Matt Beaty in the No. 6 spot in his lineup, followed by second baseman Gavin Lux and catcher Will Smith.

“Fortunately, we have had young players as a part of this roster in past years that we felt confident could handle this stage,” Roberts said, adding Beaty, Lux and Smith to that group. “I feel very confident with the guys that we’re running out there, regardless of service time.”

Roberts said that center fielder A.J. Pollock, a right-handed hitter who signed for four years and $55 million last winter, has been “struggling with spin” and was not a good matchup for Scherzer. That looked true enough when Pollock pinch-hit in the fifth, and fanned on a wicked Scherzer slider.

Beaty and Lux hit left-handed, but they were no match for Scherzer, either. They both came up twice with a runner on second and could not advance him. 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.

Roberts was destined to make this a bullpen game because starter Rich Hill had been limited by recent injuries. That style can work when the 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 Urias. 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, putting the Nationals in a spot most teams would envy — four innings to hold a four-run lead.

The Nationals trust only a few pitchers, and one of them — starter Patrick Corbin — fell apart in relief on Sunday, dooming his team to defeat. Scherzer would have to pitch deep into Monday’s game — and he did, stranding the bases loaded in the seventh by striking out Chris Taylor and getting Joc Pederson to ground out to second.

Scherzer pumped his fists and roared as Zimmerman caught the throw, and Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson collected the final six outs. The series, and the Nationals’ season, survived for another game.

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