Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Luck is important in October. But so is putting your team in the best position to win.
In the sixth inning of Game Two of the NLDS, Nationals manager Dave Martinez diverged from the ordinary and handed the ball to lefty starter Patrick Corbin to hold onto a 2-1 lead after five strong frames from Anibal Sanchez. The Nats got all they could hope for from Sanchez, and handing the ball to Corbin to navigate the lefty-heavy middle of the Dodgers’ lineup made sense. The Nationals bullpen has been spotty all year, so Martinez took the opportunity to go to a great pitcher that also happened to be a good platoon match-up against a couple great Dodgers hitters, including likely MVP Cody Bellinger.
The outcome, as we all know, was poor. The Dodgers’ seven runs that inning buried the Nationals, with Corbin the goat of the game. It wasn’t the only time Martinez got weird with his pitcher use— Max Scherzer came in for a relief appearance in Game 2, for instance, and struck out the side. That time it all worked out. Outcomes are hard to control, but pulling the right levers, making the right choices, these are the moves that make it a little bit easier for a team to win a game. For the Nationals, the choices have all been right this October, even if the results haven’t always been ideal.
Considering the playoffs are supposed to be the best facing the best, you’d think it wouldn’t be so surprising to see a team have a basically flawless string of decision-making. The problem is often that the situation, or the heart, can influence the decision. For example, Dave Roberts went to Clayton Kershaw to open the World Series last year— his third appearance in six days. In the moment you could rationalize it. After all, this was Clayton Kershaw, who had just exercised his playoff demons to win the NLCS days earlier in a relief appearance. Who could have foreseen that Boston would strafe him for five runs in four innings? Or Corey Kluber’s Game Seven in the 2016 World Series. Of course he was gassed, having basically carried the Indians to that point. But who was Terry Francona supposed to go to instead? Anyway, this was his ace. A bullpen game in the last game of the last game of the season? With everything on the line? That’s just asking for trouble.
Those choices, unlike going to Scherzer or Corbin in relief, were using pitchers with a ton of recent use at the end of a long, long season. Especially with Kershaw, even if it was supposedly his “bullpen day” when he made that relief appearance, you’d think atmosphere and intensity of the biggest Dodgers game in about three decades is a bit different from tossing a ball on the side. It’s going to be more draining, and following it up with a Game One start when most of the rest of their rotation was ready to go, that smells a bit of hubris, or of being caught up in the moment. It’s hard to say what else Francona should have done in his situation, but five innings was probably more than enough out of Kluber. It’s about timing, I suppose, and subverting the ego— understanding the moment.
It’s a bit ironic too, that across the field in that NLDS stood a manager who ultimately will be pilloried all winter for his own mismanagement of the game. Unlike the Nats, the Dodgers with their bottomless pocketbook, cutting edge development, and analysis facilities, owned a wonderful bullpen. It ranked fifth in baseball in ERA this year, sixth in FIP, eighth in strikeout rate, third in walk rate— basically holding all the touchstones of the kind of bullpen you lean on once your starter leaves a playoff game. it also notably did not contain Clayton Kershaw. Roberts’ decision to go to him, and not Kenley Jansen or Pedro Baez or even young fireballers like Adam Kolarek, is going to follow him all winter and haunt the Dodgers all next season. Even longer if they don’t finally grab that elusive championship in 2020. Again, it feels like Roberts was going off some weird gut instinct, or got caught up in the moment and lost it for his team.
This is about the Nats though, and how decision and outcome lined up perfectly for them, as they so rarely do for anyone. Martinez has had to paper over a very spotty bullpen with moves out of the ordinary, and will continue in the NLCS. He’s in a new situation as a manager and is making moves he’s never had to consider. Perhaps that helps. The last time a starter made a relief appearance for Washington in the playoffs was Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS when their backs were already against the wall, and Max Scherzer earned a loss. Martinez didn’t wait for that to be the case. He’s fired his best shot as much as he could.
You wonder when he’ll be on the wrong end of a media firestorm for sending Scherzer in on short rest, or intentionally walking when he shouldn’t, or whatever little thing will rile up the commentating class. Considering how much ink and breath was spent in the D.C. area over the last two years on his supposed missteps and inexperience, his notching a perfecto in a whole series should shut a lot of people up, even if it won’t. Talent does help, and the “decisions” of his hitters to hit timely home runs are something you can’t really judge or make happen, but the manager makes himself felt in the moves he can make, the levers he pulls. For at least five games, Martinez was right, and the Nats were victorious.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about all things baseball across the Internet, including Let’s Go Tribe and Beyond the Box Score. Give him a Twitter follow @MerrillLunch