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Relying on their starting pitchers, the Nats find themselves one game away from the NLCS.
In Game Three of the NLDS, the Washington Nationals squandered an excellent opportunity to take a 2-1 lead over the Dodgers. The Nationals were supposed to depend on the trinity of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, but it was Anibál Sánchez who put the Nationals in a prime spot to upset the Dodgers.
The initial idea was to start Scherzer who threw five innings in the the Wild Card game and threw 14 pitches in relief in Game Two, but Scherzer and Nationals manager Dave Martinez decided he needed another day to recuperate. Sánchez delivered when Washington needed him most, going five strong innings giving up just one run while striking out nine. When he walked off the mound, FanGraphs gave the Nationals a 70.5 percent chance of winning that that game.
Sánchez didn’t pass the ball off to a member of Washington’s bullpen, a corps collectively posted a 5.68 ERA in the regular season, which would have been the worst in the majors if not for the existence of the Orioles. Sánchez instead handed the ball to Patrick Corbin who had already thrown 107 pitches in Game One of the series just three days earlier.
Corbin surrendered a leadoff single to MVP candidate Cody Bellinger but got the next two Dodgers out on strikes. Corbin, however, would not record another out. Corbin left the game with four runs across and two runners on. It’s easy to judge the decision to use Corbin on short rest based on the disastrous results, but the argument for the decision made itself clear when Wander Suero gave up a three-run homer to the first batter he saw.
The rest of the bullpen didn’t fare much better. In the next inning, Fernando Rodney did Fernando Rodney things, as he walked two and gave up a hit, but somehow escaped without damage. Hunter Strickland again showed that the only thing he can be counted on to do is pump middle-middle fastballs when he gave up his third home run of the series. Going to Corbin on short rest isn’t a testament to the lefty’s talent, but rather an indictment of Washington’s middle relief.
Martinez is faced with the same decision every game: run the starter into the ground or give the ball to an incredibly shaky bullpen. Neither option is ideal. It’s just a matter of deciding which is least likely to lead to disaster. Martinez hasn’t been perfect pulling the strings this series (intentionally walking the winning run to the plate in Game Two was unnecessarily risky, even if it worked out).
On Monday night, when the Dodgers loaded the bases in the seventh inning, Martinez stuck with a tiring Scherzer because in this postseason, Martinez needs to squeeze every out he can from the few pitchers he can trust. Scherzer narrowly escaped catastrophe when Chris Taylor struck out on a hanging slider and Joc Pederson just pulled foul what would have been a bases-clearing double. The lead easily could have been shaved to just one-run with a little worse luck, a couple inches difference.
This confluence of faith and desperation created a Game Five, but how much longer can this strategy hold? The strain of not having a bullpen has already been apparent in a five-game series. Max Scherzer shouldn’t have to be pushed to the breaking point with a five-run lead, nor should Sean Doolittle be asked to get four outs in a game that wasn’t all that close. What happens if the Nationals move on to a seven-game series and they don’t have a day off between games three, four, and five? What happens when they need to protect a one or two run lead?
The Nationals can’t be bothered with questions about what happens in the next round of the playoffs. They can only worry about what happens now, living day-to-day by the seats of their starters’ pants, only concerning themselves with who is getting the next out. On Wednesday, Stephen Strasburg will be taking the hill to start an elimination game in Los Angeles. Strasburg has already appeared twice this postseason throwing three innings in the Wild Card game and another six in Game Two. In 2012, the Nationals shut down Strasburg before October. In 2019, they’ll only go as far as he can carry them, despite all-hands-on-deck in Game Five.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for McCovey Chronicles and Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.