“When you strike at a king, you must kill him,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s become a familiar sentiment in American culture, particularly after Emerson was famously paraphrased and updated for a 21st-century prestige cable drama. And it’s particularly apt after Game 3 of the World Series.
The Washington Nationals torched the heavily favored Astros in games 1 and 2, taking both by an aggregate score of 17-7, in Houston, with Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander on the mound. Then, after returning home, the Nats dropped Game 3, 4-1, and in so doing let the Astros up off the mat. If Washington had won Game 3, the Astros would be in a near-insurmountable deficit. Now, A.J. Hinch’s club has guaranteed Cole another start and has two chances to win one game and take the series back to Texas. And because of the way Washington manager Dave Martinez structured his rotation, none of his three aces—Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin—would be able to start a hypothetical Game 7 on full rest.
It might seem a little hysterical to worry about a Nationals club that leads the series, 2-1, plays the next two games at home, and can call on Corbin, Scherzer, and Strasburg, in that order, in Game 6. But such is the looming menace of this Astros roster, which won 107 games and outscored its opponents by 280 runs in the regular season. The Nationals had their boot on Houston’s throat, and now they’ve let the beast draw the breath that might sustain it. Not only that, President Trump has promised (threatened?) to attend Game 5, an event that could have been avoided had the Nationals swept, but is now—barring civilization-ending calamity—certain to take place.
There is no rest for the weary.
The Nationals lost Game 3 for several reasons, chief among them their profligacy with runners in scoring position. In the first two games of the series, Washington went 7-for-19 with runners in scoring position; in Game 3, Nationals hitters went 0-for-10 and left a batter on second or third in each of the game’s first six innings.
But there’s not much to second-guess in that number. Certainly, it’s not news to Anthony Rendon that if he’d managed to produce something other than ineffectual pop-ups with men on base, his team might have won. Besides, sometimes a team will just run into the occasional inexplicable banana peel; the first two plays of Game 3 were a slow-rolling 50-foot single and an absolutely scalded 390-foot out. To participate in high-stakes baseball is to accept a measure of merciless determinism, and there’s not always anything to second-guess.
However, there’s plenty to second-guess in the most controversial moment of the game, and perhaps the watershed moment of the series. In the bottom of the fourth, with a runner on third, one out, and the Nationals trailing 2-1, Martinez let pitcher Aníbal Sánchez hit for himself instead of going to the bench.
Let’s unpack that decision.
Sánchez, 35, has been a huge factor this postseason. He’s filled out the rotation behind the Nats’ Cerberus of aces and pitched well in Game 3 of the NLDS and Game 1 of the NLCS. For four innings, Sánchez traded quick pitches and looping changeups with Houston starter Zack Greinke, and found his spot in the lineup coming after Víctor Robles tripled in Ryan Zimmerman.
The argument for letting Sánchez hit in that situation is that with Robles on third, there was next to no risk of a double play, and with one out and Trea Turner on deck, the Nationals would have one more good chance to bring Robles in to tie the game. Anyone who pinch hit for Sánchez would have most likely made an out anyway, and pinch hitting would have obliged Martinez to go to his bullpen.
Martinez doesn’t like to do that, and for good reason. He has two good relievers—Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson—who between them have the capacity to get somewhere between six and nine outs. After that, Washington’s bullpen is dogshit. And not in the usual sense that everyone’s nervous about the bullpen in the playoffs. In the regular season, Nationals relievers ranked dead last in baseball in both ERA- and win probability added. “Dead last in baseball” is a gentler way of saying “literally worse than the Orioles.”
Washington is leading the World Series in large part because Martinez is managing to avoid the soft part of his bullpen at all costs. He’s stretched Doolittle, Hudson, and his starters, and used all three of his aces in relief at one point or another. But pinch hitting for Sánchez would’ve required Washington’s bullpen to get at least 15 outs, which they haven’t had to do in this postseason so far. Pulling Sánchez carried a measure of risk.
On the other hand, with a runner on third, one out, and the Houston infield drawn in, there was no upside to a sacrifice bunt and no chance for a squeeze to work, leaving Sánchez—a career .084 hitter—to fend for himself against Greinke. Sánchez’s fourth-inning at-bat came with a leverage index of 1.73, which was higher than 26 of the 27 plate appearances Sánchez took part in as a pitcher, and he struck out on three pitches, two of them foul bunts.
A pinch-hitter might have made an out, but with the speedy Robles on third and one out, even a medium-depth fly ball would have tied the game. And if Houston continued to play with the infield in, there would have been an increased likelihood of a blooper or ground ball squirting through a gap in the defense.
Even then, the ability to leave Sánchez in for another inning was not that great an advantage. In the top of the fifth, he immediately gave back the run Washington had scored half an inning before, then allowed another in the top of the sixth before he exited the game trailing by the eventual final score of 4-1.
That was to some degree predictable, not just based on the mystical universal tendency for fortune to favor the brave, but because Sánchez tends to pitch worse as the game goes on. This regular season, 61 pitchers threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Among those, Sanchez had the 10th-best opponent OPS+ the first time through the order, sandwiched between Cole and Charlie Morton. The second time through the order, Sánchez was 29th in opponent OPS. The third time through the order, he was 57th; opponents hit .288/.352/.571 off him, and he allowed an ERA of 5.82, which is worse than even the Nationals’ relief corps’ aggregate regular-season ERA.
After four innings, Sánchez had gone through Houston’s lineup twice exactly. And while Hudson and Doolittle couldn’t make up five innings on their own, Martinez had ways to bridge the gap. For all the jokes about the Fernando Rodney experience, the 42-year-old had not allowed a run so far this postseason coming into Game 3, and then kept the board clear in 2/3 of an inning on Friday night, despite inheriting a runner from Sánchez. Rookie Tanner Rainey has struggled to find the strike zone from time to time, and allowed a home run in Game 1 of the World Series, but he’s teetered on the edge of becoming the third trustworthy Nationals reliever.
And while Martinez said before the game that Corbin would not be available out of the pen in Game 3, Scherzer was a relief option on two days of rest. Perhaps an extended bullpen outing could have imperiled his Game 5 start, as Corbin’s Game 1 relief appearance pushed his start back a day. But if Washington had gone up 3-0 with José Urquidy starting for Houston in Game 4, there might not have been a Game 5. And if there were, Martinez could’ve had Jason Simontacchi take the mound for Game 5 and probably still won the series.
The decision to let Sánchez bat in the fourth inning carried the faint whiff of conservatism familiar to anyone who’s watched a football coach call for a punt on fourth-and-short from opposing territory. Martinez traded an early chance at victory for a long slide toward defeat. Successful postseason managers—like Hinch, and like Martinez up until this point—have recognized the importance of securing the game at hand and worrying about tomorrow when tomorrow comes. After letting the Astros back into the fight, Martinez and his charges might find tomorrow quite inhospitable.