The Nationals will win the NLCS if ...
ST. LOUIS -- The Nationals’ reward for winning the first postseason series in franchise history? A chance to win another.
There will be no rest for the Nats, who celebrated into the wee hours on Thursday, caught a flight to St. Louis in the afternoon and are set to open a best-of-seven National League Championship Series against the Cardinals on Friday. Then again, Washington probably prefers it that way, given its momentum.
“We’ve played great baseball throughout,” general manager Mike Rizzo said early Thursday morning. “I think the fact that we were playing nip-and-tuck, playoffs-caliber games since late May helped us prepare ourselves for these types of atmospheres. The leadership group on this team is second to none. I think a tip of the cap goes to [manager] Davey Martinez and the coaching staff for keeping this group galvanized and together, when it easily could’ve splintered and gone the wrong way.”
To advance again, the Nationals will need to follow a similar formula. In short, the Nats will win if ...
1. ... the rotation picks up the bullpen
Three of Washington’s top four starters have moonlighted as relievers in October, contributing nearly a third of the club's bullpen innings. It hasn’t helped the bullpen’s bottom line, considering that group’s 6.63 postseason ERA. But it has limited the number of innings pitched by some of the team’s non-first-choice relievers. Four of those -- Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero and Fernando Rodney -- combined to allow runs or inherited runs in five of their eight Wild Card and NL Division Series appearances.
All told, the Nationals’ top four starters contributed 76 percent of the team’s innings in the first two rounds. While it’s possible for Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, et al, to shoulder a similar load against the Cardinals, they’re going to have to do so in a different way. The NLCS’ less frequent off-days mean all four starters must pitch on a regular schedule, beginning with Sanchez in Game 1. If the Nats plan to limit their bullpen usage beyond Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, their starters will need to pitch as deep into games as possible.
That runs counter to the modern trend of teams relying less on starting pitching and more on relief in October. But the Nationals, who feature MLB’s second-ranked rotation and 30th-ranked bullpen, are an exception. They have the roster -- and the need -- to be a little old-school.
2. ... they can cool off Paul Goldschmidt
In his first season with the Cardinals, Goldschmidt slugged 34 homers with an .821 OPS. It was a down season for him.
This is a player who has finished in the top 11 in NL MVP Award voting five times in the past six seasons, and who hit .429/.478/.905 over five NLDS games against the Braves, with six of his nine hits going for extra bases. Goldschmidt is as hot as anyone still playing; paired with Marcell Ozuna in the lineup, he gives the Cards a duo that can potentially outslug Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. And as any Nationals fan knows, that takes some doing.
For a blueprint on how to cool off Goldschmidt, look to Scherzer, who has limited him to two hits with 14 strikeouts in 25 career at-bats. If Goldschmidt has a weakness (or more accurately, a relative non-strength), it’s his ability to hit offspeed pitches. Over the years, Scherzer has made a habit of attacking him with sliders down and away, throwing that pitch more than twice as often against Goldschmidt as against the rest of the NL.
Admittedly in a small sample, Goldschmidt is slugging 1.083 against fastballs this month and .667 against all other pitches. For the Nationals, executing quality sliders, curveballs and changeups against him could make the difference between winning and losing.
3. ... Martinez stays solid
The consensus heading into the NL Wild Card Game seemed to be that Craig Counsell would manage circles around Martinez and that the Brewers, despite significantly less talent than the Nats on paper, would have a chance. But Martinez more than held his own in that game and in the five that followed, using creative pitching solutions to upend the Dodgers.
Still, this is a manager whose job status came into question in May, before the Nationals silenced such rumors with four consecutive months of .600-plus ball. Had NLDS Game 5 played out differently, Martinez might have taken heat for his decision to let Strasburg bat with two men on base and his team trailing by three runs in the fifth. As Martinez’s counterpart Dave Roberts just proved, after all, history tends to recall managers more for their slip-ups than their successes.
Still, credit where it’s due: Martinez guided the Nats here and did so with aplomb. He’ll need to keep it going if Washington is to reach the first World Series in franchise history.