The Washington Nationals are in a familiar predicament: one loss from crashing out of the NLDS for the fifth time in the past eight seasons, with their biggest problem being a bullpen they can’t trust. The stakes and quality of play during October baseball are so high—and a blown lead so damaging to morale—that it’s hard to trust any bullpen at this time of year, which leads to mediocre or even good relief corps being viewed with an almost dysmorphic sense of insecurity.
But Washington’s bullpen is legitimately bad. In the regular season, Nats relievers posted a 5.68 ERA (29th in MLB, ahead of only the Orioles) and a collective win probability added of minus-10.82 (the worst in baseball by almost two wins). The bullpen notwithstanding, the Nationals are a great team—good enough to win 93 games, thanks to a lineup that includes the outstanding tandem of Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto and a rotation that features Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Those three are working under contracts worth more than half a billion dollars combined, and the aces have delivered good value for that money.
Second-year manager Dave Martinez has been left scrambling to cover up his team’s glaring bullpen weaknesses, however, and it’s not going well. In three NLDS games, the Nationals are outscoring the Dodgers through the first five innings by an aggregate of 5-3. From the sixth inning on, Los Angeles has been the better team by a margin of 15-3. And following the Dodgers’ come-from-behind 10-4 win Sunday, L.A. has a 2-1 series lead.
Game 3 was Washington’s postseason in microcosm. The Nats’ no. 4 starter, Aníbal Sánchez, spun a five-inning gem through a delightful combination of finesse, guile, and deception. But in the first inning after Sánchez was lifted, the somnambulant Dodgers offense erupted for seven runs, tilting the balance not only of the game, but possibly of the series as well. The losing pitcher in this debacle wasn’t a reliever, per se, but Corbin, the prized free-agent acquisition and two-time All-Star who started and took the loss in Game 1. This marked the third time in four postseason games (and fourth in five dating back to Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS) that the Nationals had called upon one of their big-name starters out of the pen.
Win or lose, Martinez’s heavy use of his Cerberus of aces in relief will be the definitive tactical gambit of his season, and perhaps of his career. It’s a desperate, or at least desperate-looking, move, but it frankly comes at a time when desperation is called for. In years past, managers who entered the postseason short on reliable pitchers would start their aces on three days’ rest to maximize the percentage of innings their best arms would throw. In 2009, then–Yankees manager Joe Girardi employed a three-man rotation en route to the World Series title; in 2016, Indians manager Terry Francona responded to a rash of injuries to Cleveland’s rotation by running Cy Young winner Corey Kluber out for six starts in 14 games, three of them on three days’ rest. Those Indians won the pennant and took the heavily favored Cubs to a seven-game World Series before Kluber ran out of gas.
While pitchers occasionally make playoff starts on three days’ rest—it’s possible that Braves lefty Dallas Keuchel will be doing just that as you’re reading this column—that’s no longer the preferred way to squeeze the most possible innings out of a top-end starter in the postseason. The modern starting pitcher makes a start every five or six days, and in between he’ll complete what’s known as a side session, a couple dozen relatively high-intensity pitches thrown in a bullpen outside of game action.
Now, rather than wasting those pitches in a side session, it’s become fairly common for starters to hold off on side work and instead throw a de facto side session somewhere in middle relief. During the Giants’ three-title run in the first half of this decade, manager Bruce Bochy deployed both Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner in this fashion when he had the chance to put a series away, most famously when Bumgarner slammed the door on the Royals in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.
The tipping point for this tactic came in the 2017 playoffs, when Astros manager AJ Hinch found himself in a position similar to the one Martinez now faces: with a great lineup, two knockout starters (Keuchel and Justin Verlander), and a bullpen teetering on the verge of collapse. Hinch called on Verlander for a 2 2/3-inning relief appearance in Game 4 of the ALDS that put the Red Sox away, a gambit that would have rendered Verlander unavailable for Game 5 had it failed. For most of the rest of the playoffs, Hinch ran out Verlander and Keuchel on normal rest, but used no. 3 through no. 5 starters Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers, and Brad Peacock on an as-needed basis, either to start games or come out of the bullpen. Ultimately, Hinch stacked all three pitchers for 8 1/3 combined innings to win the decisive Game 7 of the World Series.
Last year’s Red Sox followed suit, covering for an iffy bullpen by using all four of their best starters—David Price, Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, and Rick Porcello—in relief duty on their throw days. No. 5 starter Eduardo Rodríguez saw action as a mop-up guy, lefty specialist, and Game 4 World Series starter after an 18-inning Game 3 forced Eovaldi to work overtime. Manager Alex Cora managed his pitching staff less to a set plan than to satisfy a furtive desire for one more clean inning, right now.
Martinez’s pitcher usage is more methodical. It was clearly his plan to have Strasburg relieve Scherzer in the wild-card game against the Brewers, and to have Corbin follow Sanchez in Game 3 of the NLDS. Scherzer’s clean inning in relief of Strasburg during Game 2 seemed planned, too, though if Martinez was willing to push Scherzer’s lone start in this round back from Game 3 to Game 4 to get 14 pitches’ worth of setup work out of the three-time Cy Young winner, it’s unclear why asking him to pitch another inning to close out that game was a bridge too far.
If the Nationals end up losing this series, the sixth inning of Game 3 will be viewed as the turning point. Corbin was charged with six earned runs over two-thirds of an inning, but that belies how close Martinez’s gambit came to working. All seven L.A. runs in that inning came not only with two outs, but with two strikes. And the hit that put the game out of reach—Justin Turner’s three-run home run—came off Wander Suero, not Corbin.
Suero is one of six actual relief pitchers who’s seen action for Washington in this year’s NLDS. Four of them—Suero, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, and Hunter Strickland—have combined to allow eight earned runs, plus two inherited runners that got charged to Corbin, in just 4 2/3 innings of work. The other two, Daniel Hudson and Fernando Rodney—and yes, Rodney is pitching high-leverage innings—haven’t allowed a run between them, but have combined to record just eight outs while allowing eight base runners. Rather than second-guessing Martinez’s aggressive and unorthodox pitcher usage, it’s hard to come away from this series with anything but a visceral understanding of why he’s relying so heavily on his aces.
The only two mistakes Martinez has made, in my estimation, came in the late innings of Game 2. The first was the decision to lift Scherzer after an inning and hand things over to Hudson, who nearly blew a 4-2 Nats win. The second was the decision to intentionally walk Max Muncy in the ninth inning, which put the tying run on base. That’s a no-no under the most basic understanding of baseball tactics, and it nearly came back to bite Martinez when Hudson immediately loaded the bases on the next batter. If it had, Nats fans would’ve had just cause to riot in the streets in outrage.
But Washington survived those two blunders and won Game 2. The reason it’s losing this series is two bad innings from Corbin—his four-walk first inning of Game 1 and that disastrous sixth inning of Game 3—and two critical mistakes from ordinarily rock-solid veteran Howie Kendrick: a fielding error that allowed the Dodgers to tack on an insurance run in Game 1, and a monumental baserunning error in Game 3 that scuttled a rally in the bottom of the sixth. That, and a predictable collapse from a Nats bullpen that Martinez looks more right than ever to avoid at all costs.
With his margin for error all used up, Martinez will probably become even more aggressive in having his top three starting pitchers throw as many innings as they possibly can, both in Game 4 and a potential Game 5, if Scherzer and in all likelihood Strasburg pitch well on Monday. It’s a last resort, to be sure, but it’s the best of a menu of bad options.