The first and only winner-take-all game of the 2016 MLB division series will go down Thursday at Nationals Park.

Los Angeles Dodgers. Washington Nationals. Game 5 of the National League Division Series. A trip to the National League Championship Series on the line. Aw, heck and/or yes.

But while we could just sit here and be excited until first pitch at 8:08 p.m. ET, there are serious discussions about what the Dodgers and Nationals must do to win Game 5. Let’s narrow it down to three keys for each team, starting with the visitors.


Keys for the Dodgers

Take Max Scherzer Deep

Now, here’s advice not even John McClane would hesitate to accept. Hitting home runs is a good way to beat any pitcher. It’s science.

The difference with Scherzer, who starts for Washington in Game 5, is that home runs are the only way to beat him. The ace right-hander is rally-proof. He allowed just a .199 batting average and 2.2 walks per nine innings in the regular season, striking out 11.2 batters per nine innings. 

However, he did give up the long ball. Precisely 1.2 of them every nine innings. And he may be especially prone to home runs now, as Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post can tell you about how Scherzer‘s arm slot and fastball have flattened out recently.

The Dodgers have already shown they’re up to the task. They only collected five hits off Scherzer in their 4-3 win in Game 1, but two of them left the yard. If there’s more where that came from, the Dodgers could have all the offense they need.


Rich Hill’s Leash Should Be as Long as His Curveball Is Good

Nothing has been confirmed by the Dodgers as of Wednesday night, but Rich Hill told reporters (including’s Doug Padilla) after Game 4 that he’ll be starting Game 5.

With the Dodgers season on the line and Hill on short rest after starting in Game 2 on Sunday, it goes without saying his leash will be short. But in this case, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts can look for something specific to determine how short it should be.

Hill’s curveball is going to be on display in Game 5 for reasons that Mike Petriello of covered ahead of Game 2: It’s always on display, it’s really good and it’s a lethal weapon against the Nationals.

Or, so it seemed. What actually happened in Game 2 was Washington piled on the sudden hittability of Hill’s curveball, pictured here courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

This smoke leads to some fire. The velocity on Hill’s hook has been down lately, and his location of it has been up. It remains a good pitch, but that’s not a favorable combination. If it gets Hill in trouble, Roberts must not have too much faith he can work out of it.


Have Joe Blanton on Speed Dial

Assuming he’s not the one who gets the start, the expectation now is that 20-year-old left-hander Julio Urias will piggyback off Hill in Game 5. Following his impressive second half, this is a solid idea.

But rather than pin too many hopes on Urias, Roberts should be ready to replace him with Joe Blanton at a moment’s notice. Or, just go directly to Blanton if he’s needed in the middle innings.

We know two things about Blanton. One, he can go more than an inning if need be. Two, he’s been solid all season and even better lately. He had a 1.74 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 10.1 innings in the last month of the regular season and has pitched 3.2 scoreless innings with five strikeouts in the NLDS.

It’s all about Blanton’s slider. He’s been using it more lately, and the hits against it have been few and far between. Per fellow reliever Luis Avilan, Blanton made it clear he would be sticking with it when Dodgers pitchers were preparing for the Nationals.

“I don’t know about you guys,” Avilan told Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times, relaying Blanton’s words, “but I won’t throw fastballs at all. I just throw sliders.”

A fine plan. If Blanton does his job after the Dodgers offense hits a few home runs while Roberts plays it safe with Hill and/or Urias, the Dodgers could find themselves back in the NLCS.


Keys for the Nationals

Work Rich Hill, Attack Julio Urias

The aforementioned advice of “hit home runs, win game” also works for the Nationals in Game 5. Heck, it may work even more for them given that they’ve gone yard only three times all series.

But scoring off the Hill/Urias piggyback will also require more tact, specifically in how Nationals hitters approach them. Against Hill, they should look to work him and drive up his pitch count. Against Urias, they should be aggressive and try to hit him right out of the gate.

Being patient with Hill makes sense in light of his short rest. But there are also his splits to consider. Hill sticks with the same pitch mix each time through the order, making it easier for hitters to adjust. Lo and behold, he’s vulnerable to the usual times-through-the-order penalties. Nationals hitters got a taste of this in Game 2, when he was sharp early before falling apart. The Nats should force the issue again.

Urias is different, struggling with a .758 OPS the first time through the order. This is when he’s looking to establish his fastball, throwing it 60 percent of the time. By default, that means more pitches to hit.

If the Nationals can get even a couple of runs off the Hill/Urias piggyback, that could be enough for Scherzer and the bullpen. Speaking of which…


Be Ready to Go to Tanner Roark

After throwing only 85 pitches in Game 2, Tanner Roark was asked if he would be ready to go in Game 5 if need be.

“Oh yeah, I’ll be ready to go,” Roark responded, per Mark Zuckerman of

Nationals manager Dusty Baker may not need to call Roark‘s number if Scherzer is on his game. If not, Roark is just the guy for him to turn to if things need to be calmed down.

He didn’t look the part in allowing seven hits and three walks in 4.1 innings in Game 2, but Roark is normally an efficient pitcher who specializes in missing barrels. He was among the leaders in soft-hit percentage this season, and he was the leader in hard-hit percentage.

This could make him just the guy if the Nationals need to put out an early fire. Not only could Roark get multiple outs in a pinch, but the nature of those outs could leave Dodgers hitters frustrated after having taken some shots at one of the best strikeout pitchers in the business.


Be Aggressive with Mark Melancon

Roark can be the long man in Washington’s bullpen in Game 5. But after posting a 1.64 ERA with a 65-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2016, Mark Melancon is the Nationals’ relief ace.

Thing is, Baker may have to use him like a true relief ace for a change.

It’s true that Baker hasn’t stuck too rigidly to the traditional closer rules with Melancon. After rarely appearing in non-save situations with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post highlighted in September how often Baker used Melancon in such situations. Fine by him, apparently.

Baker has been more shy about bringing Melancon in to get more than three outs at a time. Including the postseason, he’s appeared before the ninth inning just once as a National. Regardless of the situation, it’s typically been ninth-inning-or-bust for him.

Baker should be prepared to change that in Game 5. As good as his bullpen has been in this series, Game 5 might not even be happening if Melancon had appeared in an eighth inning that got away from the Nats in Game 4. If he had, they may have preserved a 5-5 tie and gone on to win later.

Whether or not there’s a late lead to protect, Baker should not be so cautious in Game 5. This postseason has featured aggressive usage of relief aces such as Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Roberto Osuna. Melancon should be next.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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