WASHINGTON -- This was a legendary job of game management by Dave Roberts, with an assist to Clayton Kershaw.
It wasn't exactly conventional, because we don't expect to see the closer enter the game in the seventh inning. We especially don't expect to see Clayton Kershaw entering in the ninth for the save on one day's rest.
But the unusual quality of this game only served to emphasize the quality of the work that went into it. But what is going to make this gem stand the test of history is Kershaw's save, Kenley Jansen's perseverance and how a rookie manager turned what seemed to be dreadful matchup into a completely plausible and absolutely necessary postseason triumph.
The bottom line Thursday night and early Friday morning was a 4-3 victory for the Dodgers over the Nationals that won Game 5 and a National League Division Series for Los Angeles. The Dodgers now move on to the NL Championship Series against the Cubs, beginning Saturday night at Wrigley Field, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on FS1.
At the outset, the pitching matchup seemed to dramatically favor the Nationals. The Dodgers had to use their ace, Kershaw, on short rest to win Game 4 in Los Angeles two nights earlier. So they were going with veteran lefty Rich Hill, who was also on short rest and was unlikely to go deep into this game.
On the other hand, the Nationals had their ace, Max Scherzer, ready to go and fully rested. Yes, he had lost Game 1 of this series, but he had a season that appeared outstanding enough for him to win a second Cy Young Award.
And the Nats got almost everything they wanted from Scherzer. He pitched six shutout innings, but a leadoff homer in the seventh by Joc Pederson made it 1-1. Scherzer left and the Dodgers scored three more runs in the inning.
Roberts had to use six pitchers to win this game, and he did an exceptional job with maneuvering his staff. But it all became breakthrough stuff when Jansen, the closer, came out for the seventh with the Dodger lead at 4-3, one on and nobody out. Either Jansen was going to get a nine-out save, or the manager was thinking about Kershaw for the ninth.
But, asked before the game about using Kershaw, Roberts responded: "Absolutely not." He was adamant about it.
"I was, I was,' Roberts said after the game. "And that was the plan going in. But Clayton came to me in the seventh and, just understanding that Kenley was pitching from the seventh inning on, said that he had an inning if I needed it.
"So I talked to the training staff and got the OK. I just felt that Kenley was going to go out there and give us everything he had; and for that [Daniel] Murphy at-bat I wanted Clayton and so I felt good about it.
"I think for me, as I just set the groundwork for Clayton, if it got to Murphy he was going to get Murphy."
It did get to Murphy. Jansen battled; nursing the 4-3 lead, throwing 51 pitches along the way. But with one out in the ninth, he walked two batters. With Murphy coming up, Kershaw came in. He got Murphy on a pop to second and struck out pinch-hitter Wilmer Difo. Very strange, but completely true. Dodgers win.
Kershaw said he volunteered to pitch in the ninth because he had been "doing the math."
"I don't think Kenley's ever done a six-out save, let alone a nine-out save," Kershaw said. "I kind of knew all along that I would have Murphy. If Kenley went one, two, three there I'm not getting into the game. But [Roberts] told me to be ready for Murphy, and I felt fine, so it was good."
Nationals manager Dusty Baker said he was not surprised to see Kershaw warming up in the bullpen.
"You know they were doing everything they could to close that game out, including bringing Jansen in in the seventh," Baker said.
"You know, I wish they would have brought somebody else in, but they brought in one of their other horses."
Roberts declined to take credit for the management of this game. And declining the credit was one more sign of a good manager.
"You know what, it's all about the players," Roberts said. "The players just giving me, the coaches, an opportunity to try to navigate. And I think that when players buy in and trust that we're doing the right thing, that's first and foremost. But these are conversations that me, the front office, we have daily about forward-thinking, being open-minded to how you can use guys in certain roles. And today was a prime example."
After all of this ground-breaking, open-minded, forward-thinking success, the Dodgers get to face the team with baseball's best record, the Cubs.
"They are a pretty solid team, from what I understand," Kershaw said with a smile. "We've got to enjoy this for a few more hours and then we've got to get on that plane and change our mindset for sure."
Dave Roberts and the Dodgers will have their hands full with the North Siders. But after what happened in Game 5 against the Nats, the Dodgers and their manager can be forgiven for believing that absolutely anything is possible.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.