It’s usually a good idea to have more than three arms you trust in the playoffs. Usually.
The Nationals and GM Mike Rizzo didn’t get this memo, not that it seems to be too much of an issue.
The read on the eternally cursed club of our capitol was a pretty direct one. This team’s pitching is built on Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and basically nothing else. It was clear from the getgo that they wanted nothing to do with Anibal Sanchez, and when your pen is headlined by the Fernando Rodney experience, it’s a pretty good recipe for disaster. They were screaming to you, “This is all we got, and we’re gonna hope it’s enough.”
In fact, it was pretty widely agreed upon that the Nats’ lack of action at the deadline would spell an early playoff exit at best. Their lone acquisition was grabbing Daniel Hudson from Toronto, who turned out come postseason to be the only arm they kinda trusted, but even he was considered a liability.
The pen was almost laughably bad. Like, cartoonishly so. Of all 30 teams in baseball this year. All of them. Including the Orioles, the Tigers, the Marlins, the Rockies, every dumpster fire team in the league, it was a team currently cruising through the playoffs that had the worst pen ERA in baseball. That’s right, the Nats had a 5.66 ERA once they got past their starters, more than a run worse than league average, and almost two runs worse than their NLDS opponent, the Dodgers. They also tied for the lead in the NL with blown saves, at a shocking 29, and surrendered a .800 OPS when the back end approached the bump.
And guess what? Predictably, this didn’t change when they got into the postseason! They allowed hitters to slug .506 off of them. They had an ERA of 6.04, and those numbers are inflated, considering they had their key starters coming out of the pen as much as possible. When you remove Stras and Scherzer from the pen data, the ERA balloons even more.
But in the real game, you can’t remove Stras and Scherzer, because they came out and shut things down.
In reality, everything went right for the Nats in the NLDS. Take a look at it game by game.
Game 1, despite a shaky start, Corbin levels out, but once he’s removed, all hell breaks loose. This is exactly what we all expected to happen. The three relievers used each allow multiple baserunners and the pen collectively allows 4 runs in 2 innings of work, good for an 18 ERA.
Game 2, 6 innings of 1 run ball from Stras, a dream for the Nats, then they see quick trouble when they go to the pen and immediately give up a run. In a panic, they go to Scherzer to pitch a clean inning in relief, then bring in Daniel Hudson to close, who makes sure to load the bases before actually getting the job done. The Nats sneak out with a win here, but with the same woes
Game 3, after 5 good innings from Sanchez, the pen, gives up NINE runs. Six of these come from Patrick Corbin, who is being rushed out there on short rest simply because the Nats are so afraid of using their actual bullpen pieces, and reasonably so. In 3 and a third inningsm the regular pen pieces still manage to give up 3 runs without a single clean inning.
Game 4, they get 7 stellar innings from Mad Max, allowing them to only need to use their two most reliable (and reliable is of course relative) pen arms in Doolittle and Hudson. The Dodgers don’t do much here, but this is an ideal game for the Nats.
Game 5, the pen comes through like never before, and while it still needed Corbin’s help, they surrender no runs through 3 innings.
Guys they were terrified of using like Anibal Sanchez turned out to be absolute money. The Dodgers couldn’t touch Mad Max and Stras, and while they lit up Corbin in game 3, they didn’t do much to him beyond that. The point is, despite the Nats having an absolute dumpster fire of a bullpen, they did enough to win the series. It probably helped that the Dodgers managed to have a worse bullpen somehow, but nonetheless, the 5 game series was just long enough for Davey Martinez’s system to work. It very much has a “THEY CAN’T KEEP GETTING AWAY WITH IT” effect, but hey, they keep getting away with it.
But do the Nats have the depth to survive in a longer series?
Through three games against St. Louis, it sure as hell seems like it. In all three games, they got 7 or more innings out of their starters with 1 run or less given up, thus giving the bullpen as little opportunity as possible to mess things up, and only using the guys they like, basically eliminating the idea of a traditional bullpen.
What they are doing is not supposed to work. But guess what? It’s working.
Will their luck run out? Will Stras and Max run out of gas? Will Sanchez regress to what he is expected to be?
I guess we’ll find out