Before the sixth inning of the game Sunday night, the Nationals were kind of the last feel-good team of the division series. It seems like this round is full of David vs. Goliath match-ups, and so far, Goliath is mostly steamrolling the competition.
But Washington had been able to snatch a game in Los Angeles to make things interesting. And with an early two-run lead on Sunday against one of the best pitchers in baseball, Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Nationals looked like they might have what it takes to gain some real underdog momentum.
That is, of course, until they gave up seven runs in one inning and chased their own fans out of the ballpark.
Ever since Madison Bumgarner came out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series to get a five-inning save, teams have been trying to recreate that magic moment, with limited success.
Clayton Kershaw came in to pitch four scoreless innings of relief in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. Unfortunately, the Astros had already done their damage in the first two innings against Yu Darvish and the Dodgers offense never gave him a chance to make it meaningful.
Chris Sale pitched the final inning of the 2018 World Series for Boston, and while it wasn’t an elimination game, it was to close out the series and win the championship.
Stephen Strasburg came in to relieve Max Scherzer in the NL wild card game this year and he was absolutely lights out at a moment where his team needed him to be the most. It made sense at the time because it was an elimination game. I don’t know any of us yet realized that it was the entirety of the Nationals’ postseason playbook.
Elimination game strategy is obviously unique. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation where anything goes because you might not get another game. Unfortunately, the Nationals seem to have gotten it into their heads that their wild card strategy would be an effective way to work around their less than stellar bullpen situation. And I get it. We’ve all seen even the best teams undone by their weakest link.
But the lesson from this should not be to build a bullpen out of your starting pitchers, but to put together a complete team during the season. If your strategy going into the postseason is to double up the workload of the starting pitchers, during every game of every series, the future probably isn’t going to be so bright for you.
We saw that Sunday night with Patrick Corbin, who had started Thursday night’s series opener, was called upon to pitch in relief on two days rest. Corbin entered in the sixth inning with a one-run lead. That’s where it all fell apart for the Nationals.
Corbin allowed six runs on four hits and two walks, recording only two outs. Both of which came before any runs scored. It was a two out, two strike nightmare.
It couldn’t be more obvious that the Nationals trust their bullpen about as much as I trust my dogs not to dig in the trash. That is to say, not at all. So I get the appeal of asking your starting pitchers to just pick up the slack. But even if that managed to get them through this series, it is not a long-term strategy that makes sense for anyone. Especially the arms of the pitchers themselves.
Maybe there isn’t a long-term strategy other than to beat the Dodgers. And, hey, I can respect that. This is a team that has never advanced past the first round of the playoffs, so maybe that’s all they were aiming for. In that case, I would count beating the best team in the National League and losing to the (circle one: Braves/Cardinals) as a successful season.
But presumably, their goal is to win the World Series. And it’s hard to see that happening if they are relying on Strasburg, Scherzer, Corbin and Anibal Sanchez to pitch every inning that isn’t already a blowout.
/Watches Hunter Strickland expand upon his own record of most home runs allowed by a reliever in the postseason.
Then again, I don’t really know what other option they have.