Updates with quotes
WASHINGTON—One of baseball’s oldest adages says that no matter where you put your weakest link, the ball will find him. Stick him in right field, as the Bad News Bears did with Lupus, and he’ll have to catch a fly ball. Try him at first base, and you risk a Bill Buckner.
Give Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez credit for doing his creative best to upset the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series without an actual bullpen.
He still might pull it off, with two of the sport’s best pitchers at his disposal. But Sunday night’s 10-4 Game 3 loss severely limits the Nationals’ margin for error.
After his bullpen amassed an unsightly 5.66 team ERA (worst in the major leagues) during the regular season, Martinez came up with a not entirely novel idea for the playoffs: using his stellar starters as relievers. It’s his only realistic chance to win.
Stephen Strasburg pitched three scoreless innings in relief of Scherzer in last Tuesday’s come-from-behind wild-card win over Milwaukee. Scherzer returned the favor with a scoreless eighth in Friday’s 4–2 victory in Game 2 of the NLDS in L.A. that swung the momentum into Washington’s favor.
Martinez had little choice but to stick with the plan as the series moved east for Game 3, and for five innings, Anibal Sanchez made him look like a genius.
After wriggling out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, Sanchez got stronger, striking out nine and leaving with a 2–1 lead, thanks to Juan Soto’s first-inning, two-run home run.
Sanchez turned things over to Patrick Corbin, Washington’s $140 million free-agent signee who actually had a better ERA (3.25) than Strasburg (3.32) this season.
But Corbin struggled and took the loss in his postseason début in the series opener, which he started because Scherzer and Strasburg were spent in the wild-card game. And Sunday night, a different coast produced similar results: six runs allowed in two-thirds of an inning as the Dodgers broke things open with a seven-run sixth. All three hits Corbin allowed--including Russell Martin's go-ahead two-run double--came after he got ahead 0-2.
"I trust Pat. He's been unbelievable all year," Martinez said. "I just feel bad for him. He went out there and gave us everything he had. After he came out, he looked at me in the eye and said, 'I'll be ready tomorrow.' "
To be fair, it’s tough to ask any starter to change his role after six months of routine. Strasburg and Scherzer handled the job when asked, but Corbin wasn’t up to it. To quote Meat Loaf, two out of three ain’t bad, but you need three wins to claim this series.
"I don't think people understand how difficult it is to do what Max did the other night," said Sean Doolittle, the Nationals' erstwhile closer who lost that job due to injury and late-season struggles. "It raises expectations for everyone else."
And you can’t blame Martinez for trying to circumvent his combustible bullpen. There isn’t a completely trustworthy reliever in the group, proven by the fact that the four professional relievers who followed Corbin Sunday combined to allow three runs in 3 1/2 innings.
Friday’s victory (which came after all but the most die-hard Nationals fan had hit the sack) gave the skipper some leverage.
Because Sunday wasn’t an elimination game, Martinez wisely scrapped his plan to pitch Scherzer on short rest and jet lag. He’ll now start Monday night’s Game 4, and if the Nationals win, they’ll have Strasburg on full rest for Game 5 Wednesday night in L.A., hoping to match his dominant Game 2 performance.
Most managers would like their chances with a three-time Cy Young winner and a teammate who has a better chance of claiming this year’s award.
"I think we feel weirdly comfortable, even though our backs are to the wall," Doolittle said. "We've got Max going tomorrow and Stras after him. We've played a lot of back-to-the wall games here. Nobody's panicking."
But Friday’s dominant inning notwithstanding, Scherzer hasn’t been his dominant self since his stint on the injured list this summer, allowing two home runs in each of his last three starts.
If he and the Nationals can’t deliver Monday night, Strasburg may not get another chance to shine—just as he was inactive during the 2012 playoffs, a year after his Tommy John surgery.
Martinez and the Nationals deserve credit for pulling out every stop in an effort to unseat the mighty Dodgers. But you’re only as strong as your weakest link—and it eventually gets exposed.