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Will Dave Martinz’ unconventional use of his starters deliver the Nationals their first NL pennant?
Tonight begins the next round of the 2019 postseason, with the National League Championship Series kicking off in St. Louis. Both NLDS series went the distance, with the Cardinals defeating the favored Braves, embarrassing Atlanta in their own ballpark in a deciding Game Five. St. Louis and Atlanta looked evenly matched in four close games to start the series (which included several blown saves), but the Atlanta pitching laid an egg in their final game of the season, allowing the Cards to put up a ten-spot in the first inning of game five.
The Nationals were no sure thing to even make the playoffs as recently as three weeks ago, but by ending the season strong, and earning home field advantage in the NL wild card game, the Nationals positioned themselves up for a postseason run, relying on the arms of their top three starters. They came back against the Brewers in a winner-take-all wild card game, and did the same thing against the Dodgers in Game Five.
Washington won the series by cobbling together a relief corps by creatively deploying Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. The unconventional way that manager Dave Martinez used his only reliable pitchers led DC to slay the behemoth Dodgers in five games.
The Nats capitalized on some strange strategic decisions by LA skipper Brian Roberts (such as leaving Kenley Jansen on the bench until the lead was last late in Game Five), and Nats hitters took advantage of poorly executed pitches thrown by Clayton Kershaw (who came out in relief in that final game), who has yet to shake off his postseason woes.
As we head into the weekend, the Nationals find themselves in the odd position of not having home field advantage despite being looked at as the clear favorites to make it to the World Series. FanGraphs’ playoff odds have Washington with a 66 percent chance to emerge out of the NL.
The clear and obvious advantage here is the Nationals’ starting pitching, which has bled into the bullpen to become an asset. While we can question all day how long the Nats roll out their starters in reliever roles, it obviously works in small samples, since they already made it to the NLCS utilizing that strategy.
Strasburg came out of the bullpen in the wild card game to supplement a Max Scherzer start, and in the NLDS, Patrick Corbin made two relief appearances (one that went poorly and one that went well), while Scherzer made one.
All in all, Nationals starting pitchers threw 33 of the total 45 innings in the series, with the only misstep being Corbin’s Game Three nightmare, where he obtained two outs but allowed six base runners, all of whom came around to score. It happened early in the series, time for Washington to recover.
The Cardinals starting pitching was nearly as good as the Nationals in their LDS series against the Braves. Tossing a combined 31 ⅓ innings of the total 45, their starters allowed fewer than two runs per start. In 13 innings, Jack Flaherty allowed only four runs, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, and Adam Wainwright allowed only one run in their respective outings.
Curiously, despite a 10-0 lead before the Cards defense took the field, St. Louis skipper Mike Schildt decided to ride Flaherty for six innings—bullets that likely could have been saved for the LCS.
Adam Wainwright was the star of the Cardinals rotation against the Dodgers, despite the fact that St. Louis’ closer Carlos Martinez blew Wainwright’s only start. Martinez entered the ninth with a 1-0 lead, but coughed up three runs en route to a 3-1 Atlanta win. The start was a great sign for Waino and the Birds, but an unreliable bullpen is a concern heading into their matchup with the Nationals.
Going into the series, the Nationals have the advantage on starting pitching not only because of the track record of Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin throughout the year (and their , but also because all three of those starters have shown a willingness, and in some cases, an eagerness, to come out of the pen. It seemed like Max was going to will himself into that game five, though it never happened, that intensity will be favorable to the Nats in a seven game series, where we may see Scherzer deployed more than once out of the pen.
The creative use of the starters as relievers is likely a short-term stop-gap, but it’s worth mentioning that Nationals relievers had an NL-worst 5.68 ERA and a 4.94 FIP over the course of 500+ innings this year. With that track record, it’s worth being creative in the shorter-term.
The Cardinals on the other hand had the third-best reliever ERA in the NL at 3.88 and the second-best FIP in the NL at 4.01. St. Louis relievers allowed the fewest runs in the National League, though they were in the bottom-third of total reliever innings thrown.
On the offensive side of the ball, neither team is a juggernaut akin to the Yankees, Astros, or Dodgers (RIP). The Nationals do have an advantage as they, as a whole, are more patient and drew more walks over the course of the season. Their offense was certainly not the reason they beat the Dodgers however, as the team managed a pathetic .230/.321/.373 slash line, including five home runs, over the course of the five-game series.
The Cardinals offense absolutely exploded in Game Five, where they scored an equal number of runs through the first four games combined. This can be chalked up to a terrible first inning by Braves pitching, and a slow-to-react manager who kept Mike Foltynewicz in the game longer than necessary in a winner-take-all contest.
While it’s hard to accurately measure defense, especially in a short-sample of one team in one season, the Cardinals ranked higher than the Nats. Having said that, a couple key defensive miscues and some topsy-turvy left field defense by Marcell Ozuna could be exposed in a short series.
Leaving aside the debate of whether or not the ball has been deadened for the postseason, the Nationals offense is well-positioned in this series as the better offense against the lesser pitching staff. Overall however, this series will come down to how far the Nationals can take their top-three pitchers, and how much of the high-leverage relief innings will throw their starting rotation into disarray.
It’s clear that Dave Martinez will take these series one day at a time, borrowing from tomorrow to put out a fire today. Whether this can work in consecutive series remains to be seen, but the strategy is pretty clear. If the offense can make even one game a laugher, it will position the Nationals well for the rest of this series and potentially value them to a championship.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano