LOS ANGELES — With a short swing by the Dodgers’ Chase Utley resulting in a ground ball past a diving Daniel Murphy of the Nationals in the eighth inning Tuesday, the rocking emotions of a wild Game 4 of this National League division series reached their climax.
First, fans watched in awe as Clayton Kershaw, on three days’ rest, provided a herculean effort in an elimination game for Los Angeles. Then they grew tense as Kershaw lost a battle with Washington outfielder Bryce Harper as the game hung in the balance.
That feeling was replaced by disappointment, if not downright anguish, as the Dodgers’ bullpen quickly lost the lead and Kershaw buried his head in his hands in the dugout.
Finally, the emotions bordered on euphoria as Dodger Stadium erupted when Utley delivered a game-changing R.B.I. single off Nationals reliever Blake Treinen — the hit that propelled the Dodgers to a nail-biting 6-5 win and forced a decisive Game 5 in Washington on Thursday.
The topsy-turvy game ended when Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen notched three quick outs in the ninth.
The Nationals will confront their playoff demons head-on in Game 5. In a 2012 division series, they lost Game 5 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the ninth inning with their closer on the mound. The Nationals were also haunted by bullpen meltdowns in the 2014 playoffs.
On Tuesday, the Dodgers entrusted the fate of their season to Kershaw. Asked to start on three days’ rest in an elimination game for the third consecutive postseason, Kershaw summoned every ounce of verve to deliver six-plus innings.
The Dodgers could feel encouraged going into the game because they were facing the Nationals’ Joe Ross. Left-handed batters hit .317 against Ross in the regular season, and the Dodgers employed a left-handed-heavy lineup.
Ross’s shaky command did not help the Nationals’ cause. After Washington took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on Murphy’s R.B.I. single, the Dodgers took the lead in the bottom of the inning with a two-run homer by Adrian Gonzalez, a left-handed first baseman.
Murphy again boosted the Nationals by tying the score at 2-2 with a sacrifice fly in the third. But in the bottom half of the inning, Ross faltered.
Kershaw hit a leadoff double. After Utley and Corey Seager produced outs, Justin Turner, a right-handed batter, hit a ball to left-center field. Trea Turner, a shortstop who moved to center field this season for the Nationals out of need, took a bad route to the ball and could not snare it. Turner’s single gave the Dodgers a 3-2 lead.
Ross then walked Gonzalez, missing the strike zone inside and low. Mike Maddux, the Nationals’ pitching coach, visited Ross on the mound to offer some encouragement, but Ross walked Josh Reddick to load the bases and then hit Joc Pederson with a two-strike slider that missed badly. The Dodgers had a 4-2 lead, and Ross left the game.
The lead grew to 5-2 in the fifth inning when Pederson socked an R.B.I. double to left field. The game was firmly in the Dodgers’ control.
Manager Dave Roberts let Kershaw take the mound in the top of the seventh with a pitch count of 89. Kershaw faced the bottom of the Nationals’ order, which had done nothing against him all game.
Danny Espinosa started the inning by lacing a single to left field. Kershaw struck out Pedro Severino and massaged a flyout from pinch-hitter Chris Heisey.
Kershaw got Turner to hit a ground ball to Seager, who gloved the ball but could not flip it to second base in time for an out. This brought up Harper with two outs and two on, a battle of two former most valuable players with the game on the line.
Including the postseason, Harper was 2 for 20 in his career against Kershaw. But Harper was patient and did not swing at two potential strike-three calls. Tom Hallion, the home plate umpire, called them balls, and Kershaw grimaced each time.
Harper fouled off two more pitches and then took the eighth pitch of the at-bat to work a walk that loaded the bases. Kershaw’s pitch count stood at 110, and Roberts removed him from the game.
Reliever Pedro Baez came into the game and promptly hit Jayson Werth on the side, scoring a run and trimming the Dodgers’ lead to 5-3. Roberts immediately took out Baez for the left-handed reliever Luis Avilan, who came in to face Murphy. Two pitches into his at-bat, Murphy slapped a fastball over the middle of the plate into center field for a game-tying two-run single. The emotions now ran high on the Nationals’ side as Murphy pumped his fist at first base while his teammates jumped with glee in the dugout.
The crowd’s mood was one of shock, which was replaced by anger in the bottom of the inning when Hallion called out Yasiel Puig on a checked swing. Puig argued with Hallion and had to be restrained by Roberts and George Lombard, the Dodgers’ first-base coach. (Replays indicated the Puig had checked his swing.) The crowd taunted Hallion for the next inning.
That feeling evaporated in the eighth when the Dodgers’ rally started. Andrew Toles was hit by a pitch with two outs and Andre Ethier delivered a pinch-hit single, setting the stage for Utley’s redemptive swing.