WASHINGTON — The natural inclination with every passing base runner against Clayton Kershaw in the fourth and fifth innings on Friday was to look at the visitors’ bullpen in left field at Nationals Park, which was an odd feeling with the best pitcher alive on the mound.
The first game of the National League division series between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers was supposed to be a pitchers’ duel between Kershaw and Max Scherzer. But neither starter, particularly Kershaw, was at his best.
He slogged through the game, his command not quite sharp and his movements around the mound deliberate. He did not look right. But Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts stuck with him, and he delivered five hard-fought innings in the Dodgers’ 4-3 win over the Nationals.
Kershaw normally toys with hitters with cartoonish ball movement and pinpoint location, but it was the Nationals who made him work harder this time. They fouled off his offerings, and he kept just missing the strike zone.
Even though Scherzer dug the Nationals into a 4-0 deficit in the fourth inning, their lineup clawed back and pushed Kershaw to the edge. He managed to survive, doing just enough to hand the ball over to the Dodgers’ best-in-baseball bullpen to preserve the lead.
Both teams have playoff demons to conquer. The Nationals had the best record in the N.L. in 2012 and 2014, and twice were bounced from the first round of the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion. They earned their third N.L. East title in five years this season, focused on forging a new chapter in their history.
“It irks a lot of guys that this Nationals team has not made it past the first round,” said Nationals starter Tanner Roark, who was scheduled to pitch Game 2 here on Saturday. “But you know, the main thing is, we’ve got to take it one game at a time and not worry about the next game.”
The Dodgers, too, have rarely had to worry about the next game beyond the first round. They have won the N.L. West for four consecutive seasons, dating to 2013, and have won only one playoff series, a division series in 2013 over the Atlanta Braves.
Once the calendar turns to October, Kershaw’s pitching faces unusual scrutiny. From April to September, he is known as the best pitcher in the sport. But a few rough starts ballooned his postseason E.RA. to 4.59 over 13 games entering Friday. Scherzer carried a 3.73 E.R.A. over 12 postseason games into his start against the Dodgers.
Facing each other on Friday, neither pitcher seized control of the game.
Despite missing more than two months of the regular season with a herniated disk in his lower back, Kershaw pitched well since his return in early September. If not for the injury, he would have been a strong contender for his fourth N.L. Cy Young Award.
Instead, Scherzer finished the regular season as one of the favorites to claim the award, with a 20-7 record and 2.96 E.R.A. But he has a glaring Achilles’ heel: Despite leading the major leagues with 284 strikeouts in the regular season, Scherzer allowed a career-high 31 home runs, the most in the N.L.
Against the Dodgers, the same tendency put the Nationals in an early hole. Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager smashed the first pitch he saw from Scherzer in the first inning over the center-field wall.
Two innings later, Scherzer coughed up an R.B.I. single to Chase Utley and a two-run homer to Justin Turner that gave the Dodgers a 4-0 lead. Once the Nationals trimmed the deficit to one run, Scherzer regained his form, but Kershaw and the Dodgers’ bullpen managed to hold on.
In the third inning, Kershaw gave up a double to Bryce Harper and walked Jayson Werth. The two pulled off a double steal that proved critical because it allowed Anthony Rendon to drive them in with a single to left field.
Kershaw needed 66 pitches to complete three innings. His pitch count jumped to 83 after the fourth, and the Nationals trimmed the deficit to 4-3 with Trea Turner’s sacrifice fly. Kershaw also needed a number of talks on the mound with catcher Yasmani Grandal to navigate out of trouble.
As Kershaw labored through the fifth inning, Roberts stayed perched on the top step of the Dodgers’ dugout. Kershaw gave up a single to Werth and got a popout. Finally, once Rendon singled to left field, the bullpen phone rang and Joe Blanton started warming up.
Kershaw, however, stayed in. Ryan Zimmerman popped out to right field and Kershaw struck out Danny Espinosa to complete the inning. After 101 pitches, Kershaw’s day was done. Roberts then deployed the bullpen and got a five-out save from closer Kenley Jansen to complete the victory.