Andre Ethier Channels Captain Clutch. Dodgers 3, Nationals 2

Andre Ethier’s ninth inning home run capped the Dodgers’ 3-2 victory on Saturday night. (Image source: ESPN at http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2010/0523/la_u_ethier_576.jpg)

The Dodgers entered the so-called “official second half of the season” by winning the first of the sixty-eight remaining games.  And they did so with a familiar face turning back the clock a few years to tell a familiar story.

Andre Ethier, who as recently as a month and a half ago appeared to be well on his way out of Los Angeles, now finds himself in position to be an important veteran presence on a team with World Series ambitions.  He did so with what may have been his biggest hit in a few seasons, a golf shot to right off Rafael Soriano on a 1-2 count leading off the inning that carried into the right field seats at Nationals Park and broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the ninth.

One of the more remarkable things about Ethier’s home run is that he hit it on a pitch that really wasn’t designed to be driven.  The 82 mile an hour sinker was on its way down, just passing below knee level on its way toward Ethier’s ankles, a borderline pitch that might not have been called a strike if Ethier had let it go.  But Ethier got off a perfect swing on the pitch, swinging with a bit of an upper-cut, and got the sweet part of the bat to hit the ball at just the right angle to drive it over the head of Jayson Werth and into the front row of the seats.

Combined with a 2-0 Giants victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Dodgers find themselves back over .500 and a game and a half off the division pace.  Here’s how it happened.

The Nationals drew first blood in the second inning.  Bryce Harper doubled, then took third on a sacrifice fly to right field.  Controvery ensued as Yasiel Puig made a brilliant throw.  In fact, replays clearly show third baseman Juan Uribe applying a tag with ball in glove on Harper while his hands were still at least a foot and a half from the bag.  But the third base umpire felt otherwise, ruling Harper safe, and he come in to score on a wild pitch to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead.  The throw was so good that despite the missed call it still made highlight reels.

The Dodgers grabbed the lead away in the top of the third inning.  A two out base hit by Adrian Gonzalez set up Hanley Ramirez, who took a 95 mile an hour fastball from Stephen Strasburg and drove it just to the right of center field on a hard line.  As quickly as the ball got out of the park, the Dodgers had taken a 2-1 lead.

The Nationals wound up tying the game in the bottom of the sixth.  With one out, Ricky Nolasco, tiring a little early in the high heat and humidity in Washington D.C., gave up an RBI single to Ian Desmond, the third hit he had given up in the previous four batters.  Ryan Zimmerman scored, tying the game at two.  The Dodgers then called in fireballing rookie reliever Jose Dominguez, who took care of business by getting a double play ball out of the Nationals’ Chad Tracy to end the inning.

The two teams hung zeroes on the board in the seventh inning and Yasiel Puig made his second “WOW!” play in the outfield of the game, this time getting credited for the out.  With two outs, Nationals second baseman Anthony Rendon hit a hard line drive down the right field line toward the corner.  The wall cuts in close to the field and there is not a lot of foul territory.  Puig, running full tilt, ran out of the view of the television camera to an angle that could not be seen by many people in the park and into foul ground.  A moment of anticipation, then fans near the corner raising their arms and Puig coming away with the ball.  Replays from a different camera angle showed that Puig caught the ball in foul ground, then hit the wall, fell to the ground hard, then quickly jumped up with just as much force, showing the ball and running off the field with the third out firmly in hand, eliciting a “WOW!” from relief pitcher Paco Rodriguez.

Ethier led off the top of the ninth with the home run that we described at the beginning of this article, then Kenley Jansen rode in to strike out two in a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth inning to close out the Nationals and pick up his 10th save of the season.

Ricky Nolasco pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up 2 runs on 8 hits, striking two and walking out two.  Stephen Strasburg went a solid seven innings for the Nationals, giving up 2 runs on the Hanley Ramirez home run while scattering 7 hits, walking one and striking out six.  Neither pitcher factored into the decision.

Ronald Belisario (4-5, 3.56 ERA) picked up the win for the Dodgers in relief after pitching a scoreless eighth inning.  Rafael Soriano (1-2, 2.41 ERA) picks up the loss for the Nationals on the Ethier homer.  Kenley Jansen (10 saves, 2.28 ERA) continues to be absolutely brilliant in the closer role he took over about a month ago, picking up the save.

The Dodgers and Nationals will have game two of this important post-break starting three game series tonight at 4:10 p.m. Pacific Time at Nationals Park.  Zack Greinke (8-2, 3.49 ERA) goes for the Dodgers.  He’ll be countered by Washington’s Gio Gonzalez (7-3, 3.03 ERA.)

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