WASHINGTON -- The Nationals' bullpen was such an obvious flaw that it threatened to derail their season at numerous points. But a trio of relievers found a groove in the National League Championship Series sweep of the Cardinals, giving the Nats hope that this could carry through the World Series.
Daniel Hudson has not allowed an earned run since Aug. 30, including six scoreless appearances in the postseason. Sean Doolittle looks like his old self again, giving up just two runs in 7 1/3 innings (2.45 ERA) with six strikeouts and no walks in the playoffs. And the Nats may have found another reliable arm during the NLCS after a pair of scoreless appearances from Tanner Rainey, who had three strikeouts and did not issue a walk.
“I was so proud of those guys,” manager Dave Martinez said the night of Game 4 on Tuesday. “And [I've] said this all along -- I've asked these guys to do things that they probably didn't think they could do. Doolittle going out there and getting five outs. Huddy doing the same thing. Rainey, putting him in big moments when everybody thought, 'This guy's wild, he walks everybody,' and giving him the ball. He's matured so much this year that he's one of the guys. I mean, he's got electric stuff. I'm very confident in putting him in the game.”
After all, it’s not like Martinez is asking for much.
Washington’s starting pitching has made the bullpen an afterthought for much of the postseason. In the NLCS, the Nats’ starters covered 75 percent of the team’s innings, and for the postseason as a whole they’ve thrown 76 percent. It’s nothing new; Martinez also asked his relievers for the fewest innings in baseball during the regular season. But they still proved untrustworthy. Slowly, over the past month, however, a few relievers have rounded into form.
Hudson, acquired from the Blue Jays at the Trade Deadline, has been lights out since the Nationals got him. After a brief stint on the injured list with right knee tendinitis in August, Doolittle finally felt back to normal at the end of September and is pitching like the All-Star version of himself. And after an up-and-down season in which he struggled with his command overall, Rainey finished the regular season with eight straight scoreless appearances with 13 strikeouts and two walks. They all have the swing-and-miss stuff late-inning relievers need.
Washington's top four starters -- Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Aníbal Sánchez and Patrick Corbin -- and three relievers -- Hudson, Rainey and Doolittle -- have combined to throw 85 of the Nationals’ 90 innings this postseason (94.4 percent). With the break from the NLCS to the World Series, which begins Tuesday, the Nationals should be able to have a starter available in the bullpen (LOOGY Corbin again, anybody?) for at least Games 1 and 2 and later in the series.
It’s a formula the Nationals will try to replicate in the World Series. Hand the ball to one of these seven pitchers, and that’s it.