WASHINGTON — Patrick Corbin had spent the past two years terrorizing Los Angeles Dodgers hitters, relying mostly on a biting, tilting, low-80s slider that closely resembles his fastball until it’s too late to adjust. But Russell Martin remembered this one key tidbit in a postseason pregame meeting that outlined Corbin’s tendencies: With two strikes and runners in scoring position, strikes are highly unlikely.
So when Martin faced an 0-2 count in the top of the sixth inning of Sunday’s National League Division Series game — with two outs, runners on the corners and the Dodgers trailing by a run, their offense continuing to reel and their season suddenly on the brink — he focused on tracking pitches and hardly worried about swinging.
He watched a slider break into the dirt and identified the point where he could differentiate it from Corbin’s fastball.
He saw a fastball next, sailing up and in, and compared the difference.
“The more pitches I saw,” Martin said, “the more I felt comfortable.”
Corbin went to the slider again, with the count now 2-2, and this time Martin was the aggressor. The pitch traveled 85 mph, began in the strike zone and dropped just below it, an ideal location in that setting. But Martin lofted the baseball deep into the left-center gap for the two-run double that gave the Dodgers a lead, ignited an improbable seven-run inning, inspired a 10-4 victory in Game 3 and ultimately put the pressure squarely on the Washington Nationals.
The Dodgers’ offense was noticeably reeling when the sixth inning began. Their hitters had collected 38 strikeouts in 75 postseason at-bats, only five shy of the record for any three-game stretch within a playoff series — and then suddenly they erupted.
Their final tally in the sixth: 11 batters; two walks; six hits, four of them for extra bases; and seven runs, all of them with two outs and all of them driven in by three hitters — Martin, Enrique Hernandez and Justin Turner — who came back from being down 0-2 in the count. More than 50,000 MLB games have been played over the past 20 years. Before Sunday night, no team has had that many two-out RBIs from players who faced 0-2 counts, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.
“We just fight,” Dodgers corner infielder David Freese said, his team now up 2-1 in this NLDS. “You get here by fighting. You get here by being confident. Just passing the baton and moving the chain. We just had an inning where we just showed up and got it done.”
The beginning was subtle, as is typically the case, but it was also encouraging. It was a line-drive single down the right-field line from Cody Bellinger, the potential MVP who had accumulated zero hits and five strikeouts through his first eight at-bats in this series. Corbin, who relieved a highly effective Anibal Sanchez after five innings, recorded strikes on his first two pitches. But Bellinger laid off three others out of the strike zone, fouled off a couple more, then turned on a slider low and away and started a rally.
“He hasn’t had much success in the first two games,” Turner said, “and he’s in there grinding, trying to get locked in, and he wants to be that MVP guy for us that he’s been all year. And that at-bat kind of unlocked him.”
Bellinger would register another hit, a double, before the end of the inning. But long before that was Freese, hitting for Gavin Lux, beating the shift by sneaking a two-out grounder through the right side, his first of three hits in a game he did not start.
“He has to be going down as one of the greatest October players of all time,” Dodgers infielder Max Muncy said of Freese, the man who famously propelled the St. Louis Cardinals to the 2011 World Series. “I don’t care what anyone says — he has to be.”
Martin was only in the game because Hyun-Jin Ryu was the starting pitcher. Over the last two years, he mustered only a .665 OPS, 78 points below the major league average. He navigated through the 2019 season with a .220/.337/.330 slash line, but the Dodgers value him for his personality and his insight.
Martin, 36, spent the first five years of his career with the Dodgers and found his way back with them after a winding path that saw him play for the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays. His sixth-inning double was only his second extra-base hit since Sept. 3. His ninth-inning home run was his first postseason homer for the Dodgers since the 2008 NLDS, against the Chicago Cubs, which Martin remembered well.
“That’s such a long time ago,” Martin said. “A lot of foul tips ago.”
Martin’s double was followed by a Chris Taylor walk, which was followed by Hernandez, the Dodgers’ third pinch hitter of the inning, falling behind 0-2, laying off a slider low, then turning on a slider out over the plate and blasting it deep into Nationals Park’s outfield.
After signaling for an intentional walk of Muncy, Corbin, the former Arizona Diamondbacks starter who had held the Dodgers to three runs in 36⅓ innings since the start of the 2018 season, exited.
The Dodgers had finally gotten to him.
“We were trying to see the ball a little bit deeper,” Hernandez said. “All those years in the NL West, I think the one slider that I hit was the first slider that I’ve recognized out of the hand that he’s thrown.”
When Turner blasted a three-run homer off right-handed reliever Wander Suero — on the sixth consecutive cutter that he saw — the Dodgers had set a franchise record for postseason runs in an inning. The Dodgers finished with eight RBIs by players who fell behind in the count 0-2, the most by any team all season. And they joined the 2010 San Francisco Giants and the 2007 Boston Red Sox for the most two-out runs in a single inning in postseason history, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.
Corbin faced seven batters and reached two strikes on five of them.
He retired only two.
“He just couldn’t finish,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “They laid off some good pitches.”
Sanchez recorded nine strikeouts through five innings, but he expended 87 pitches and was starting to get hit around in the final frame. His spot came up in the bottom of the fifth, and Martinez opted to hit for him. Martinez knew Corbin, Thursday’s Game 1 starter, could contribute 35 pitches and was hopeful that he could stretch it over the course of two innings, then hand the ball to Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson to finish the game off.
The Dodgers torched that plan, and now they’ll prepare for a Game 4 matchup on Monday night that might feature a tired Max Scherzer, who threw his between-starts bullpen session in Game 2.
“It’s not the same being down 2-1 on the road with Scherzer on the mound than being up 2-1 on the road with Scherzer on the mound,” Hernandez said. “If there is a Game 5, we’re going home. It’s huge. I like our chances now.”
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