WASHINGTON -- The postseason has a tendency to challenge convention.
With seasons hanging in the balance, traditional roles can quickly unspool under the weight of the moment, creating opportunities to stray from the bounds of normality.
Such was the case for the Nationals’ beleaguered bullpen in Friday night’s 4-2 victory over the Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium.
Three days after watching Stephen Strasburg fire three scoreless innings in his first career relief appearance during the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday, Washington’s relievers welcomed another surprise guest to the bullpen in three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who struck out the side in a perfect eighth before turning it over to Daniel Hudson. He escaped a fraught ninth inning to close out the game, evening this best-of-five series at one game apiece.
In addition to anchoring the rotation, Strasburg and Scherzer have remarkably emerged as the Nationals’ most dependable relievers over their first two victories of the postseason. It’s unclear if the strategy will prove sustainable as the series shifts to D.C. for Game 3 on Sunday, but it once again revealed manager Dave Martinez’s lack of confidence in his bullpen.
The Nationals' relievers are attuned to this reality. They are not blind to their faults. They understand the advantages of deferring to their stacked rotation in those high-leverage situations wherever possible, and they’re willing to buy in as they attempt to fell the powerhouse Dodgers.
“As a relief corps, you put your ego aside and welcome those guys to come into the ‘pen and help you out,” left-hander Sean Doolittle said on Friday. “It just gives you more weapons. It just gives you more chances for matchups. Tonight, it worked out really, really well. And in the Wild Card Game, it worked out really, really well. Our starting pitching is absolutely our strength. So the more we can get those guys in the game, the better our chances are.”
After posting the second-worst ERA in the Majors during the regular season, the bullpen was expected to be the Nationals’ biggest liability in October. They don’t have many trusted relief options aside from Doolittle and Hudson, who have closed in alternate shifts. Still, Doolittle said Washington's relievers gathered over the final week of the regular season and spoke of their desire to “flip the script” once the postseason began.
“We’re not ignorant to the fact of what the numbers say,” Doolittle said. “We wanted a chance to prove to ourselves, to the guys in this room and to everybody else that we can help this club moving forward.”
That goal took a hit in Game 1 against the Dodgers, who torched Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland for four runs over two innings en route to a convincing 6-0 win on Thursday. The Nationals knew they couldn’t afford another blowup in Game 2, not when it meant facing a 2-0 series deficit against the defending NL champions.
So Martinez managed with greater urgency on Friday, creatively deploying his best pitchers after the Nationals took an early lead against Clayton Kershaw to mask the overall deficiencies of his bullpen.
“Those guys are a big part of why we are here,” Martinez said of his relievers. “They have had their struggles, but they understand it's one game. We play for one game. Our biggest emphasis all year was to go 1-0, and now it's that time.”
In the end, selflessness trumps pride when survival is on the line.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Hudson said. “Everybody’s up for whatever. Stephen going out in the Wild Card Game and throwing three shutdown innings. Max coming out there and doing what he did. We’ll see what the plan is the rest of the way. I know we have all the confidence in the world in everybody down there that they’re going to get the job done. But to have those extra guys come down there and be a little bit of reinforcement for us is awesome.”