In a potential playoff matchup, Nationals fall flat against Dodgers

The Washington Nationals took their team photo before their 7-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday. Every player on their roster had to be in uniform by 3 p.m., a deadline more easily met by some than others.

When they shuffled back into the clubhouse afterward, grumbling and heckling one another, many of them noticed the Cubs-Cardinals game on the television screens. Little by little, they dispersed to the training room, the kitchen and the weight room. Wherever they were, they watched.

When Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez singled home a run, hoots and hollers floated in from all corners. When Cubs starter John Lackey got ejected, high-decibel commentary echoed down the hallways. A few hours before a much-hyped, nationally televised series that could decide which of these teams has home-field advantage in a potential National League Championship Series, the Nationals’ concerns seemed to lie elsewhere, with their potential first-round opponent. They did not, for example, seem worried about making any kind of statement.

This series “is kind of like recon,” Jayson Werth said. “It’s good to see these guys if we do play them” in October.

But doubt — more than the Dodgers, more than anyone, really — may pose the greatest danger to these Nationals as they head into October. One loss probably won’t create too much of it. A few more nights like Friday might foster enough to stick in their minds.

The Nationals did not line up their starting pitching like a team determined to win these three games. Instead of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals lined up Edwin Jackson, inserted A.J. Cole, then chose to keep Strasburg on regular rest. The Dodgers won’t get a look at Scherzer or Gonzalez. The Nationals won’t see Clayton Kershaw or Yu Darvish. No one could blame either side for holding back.

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Jackson, coming off his worst start as a National, allowed three home runs in the first two innings — one to Justin Turner, one to Yasiel Puig and one to Corey Seager. By that time, he had allowed seven home runs in his past 10 innings. He is struggling for consistency with his delivery and, because of that, is feeling for command.

For much of Jackson’s career, missing out of the zone has been the problem, but overcorrecting can cause trouble, too. As the Dodgers hit flyball after flyball toward the warning track — one of which turned into a double when Werth lost the ball in the twilight — he seemed unable to find a safe balance between the two.

“I think tonight was a bad job of being able to throw off-speed for strikes, which I think allowed them to eliminate any pitch except for a fastball,” Jackson said. “They didn’t miss any fastball that I threw over the zone.”

Jackson got one out in the third inning before Dusty Baker came to get him. He threw 2⅓ innings and allowed seven runs — one for each out he recorded — on six hits and two walks. Jackson will not start against the Dodgers if these teams meet in October.

Baker admitted he felt something extra about this series, had been thinking about it longer than usual. The 68-year-old always seems to feel the lights get brighter and to brighten along with them.

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He said he considers this week’s series more of an intelligence-gathering effort than anything else. The Nationals hadn’t played the Dodgers since June. If they see them in October, they will have more recent experiences to call upon when the stakes are highest. Then again, the Dodgers will, too.

Either way, Baker didn’t seem overly concerned with results. If he were, he might be worried that his team compiled three hits against Dodgers starter Alex Wood in six scoreless innings — and just one more against two relievers. Wood could face them in a playoff series, so when asked what made him particularly tough Friday night, Werth said, “Can’t give away too much.”

Said Baker: “Nobody likes to get shut out, and we’ve been shut out twice this week in a short period of time. So we’ll just have to address it and just increase concentration and aggressiveness.”

Another potentially concerning result from Friday, if only because it is entirely out of character, is that Daniel Murphy struck out three times. Murphy battled a stiff neck all week but generally has not looked like his usual, formidable self for much of the past two months. He did not strike out three times in a game last season. He has done so twice in the past 15 days. Murphy likely won’t be the Nationals’ third hitter in a potential playoff series. Bryce Harper probably will be.

So while Friday did not reflect well on the Nationals, reading too much into one lopsided loss would be misreading the situation.

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Much of what doomed the Nationals on Friday will not be a problem in October. Much of what encouraged them — namely the 6⅔ scoreless innings from the six relievers who followed Jackson — involved some who will pitch when it matters.

Still, the Nationals finished the evening six games behind the Dodgers for the best record in the National League. Their chances of gaining home-field advantage in the NLCS shrank. The Nationals spent the afternoon watching their potential division series opponents, not obsessing about the Dodgers. They never saw this series as a defining moment or even a telling one. If two similarly rough showings follow this one, it could become so anyway.

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