LOS ANGELES -- Before their postseason run began, the Nationals knew they were going to have to get a bit creative to find ways to close out games. They met with their starting rotation, the one they invested more than half a billion dollars into, and let them know they would be asked to pitch in situations they might not be accustomed to. That’s one way to avoid a leaky bullpen.
“Our game plan was to try to utilize these guys the best way possible without disrupting their starts,” manager Dave Martinez said. “We talked to all of them and they have all been on board. ... When you get to these games, I've said this before, you're playing to win one game.”
The Nationals were willing to pull out all the stops to escape Los Angeles with a 4-2 win in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. Stephen Strasburg started the game on two days’ rest after his relief appearance in the NL Wild Card Game Tuesday. Sean Doolittle was called on to pitch the seventh inning. And perhaps the gutsiest decision of all: using Max Scherzer, just hours after he was named the starter for Sunday’s Game 3, to pitch the eighth inning and bridge the gap to Daniel Hudson at the end.
It paid off as Scherzer struck out the side on 14 pitches in the eighth inning and evened the NLDS at one game apiece. Game 3 will be played Sunday night at Nationals Park. In the current Division Series format, when the first two games are a split, the team returning home for Games 3 and 4 has won the series 62% of the time.
“I think we viewed tonight, I think we viewed it as a must-win game,” Doolittle said. “You want to win both games, but you got to feel really good about going home with a chance to win the series at home, where we’ve played so well. You can’t fall behind two games to none to a team like that."
So, perhaps this outing will prevent Scherzer from starting Game 3 (the Nats will decide Saturday whether it will be him or Aníbal Sánchez). But that’s a decision the Nats weren’t worried about Friday. Win Game 2, then figure out Game 3 when they get there.
“Boston showed us last year [in the World Series] if a guy’s not starting, doesn’t mean he’s not pitching that day,” Dodgers infielder Max Muncy said. “They used Max pretty effectively there.”
"For me, you bring it whenever you’re told to bring it,” Scherzer said. “This is the playoffs. You lay it on the line every single time you touch that field. Whenever I get the ball next, I get the ball. And you just lay it on the line.”
Scherzer spoke to the coaching staff after batting practice and opened the idea of pitching in relief on two days’ rest. He held off throwing his bullpen session in case he was needed and felt like he could give the Nationals an inning. And Scherzer was able to dial up his velocity for that frame. In the regular season, his fastest pitch was 98.4 mph. In two postseason games so far, he has thrown seven pitches faster than that.
Strasburg also went out of his comfort zone. First he threw three innings in relief on Tuesday, the first time in his pro career he has appeared in relief. And then he wanted the ball again three days later and proceeded to toss six innings of one-run ball with 10 strikeouts, lowering his postseason ERA to 0.64, the lowest in MLB history (minimum four starts).
“They’ve been doing that all year, since I’ve been here,” Hudson said. “Stephen, just cool, calm, collected Stephen like always. He’s out there dominating. And Max out of the ‘pen is a different animal. He’s dominant most of the time. And to get that adrenaline when he’s coming in there late in a game is fun to watch.”
It’s unclear whether this model is sustainable for the Nationals, but it’s clear they plan to ride their aces as far as their right arms will carry them.
Scherzer and Strasburg have thrown 17 of their 27 postseason innings with 23 strikeouts and four walks. Maybe the Nats will eventually have to rely on one of their middle relievers, the ones who contributed to a 5.68 ERA, the second-worst in the Majors. But the Nats treated Game 2 with the urgency of an elimination game and it paid off. Now they have to find a way to win two more games in this series.
“For me, it's you pitch your best guys to win,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Obviously Max is in that category for us and in the elimination game Strasburg was in that category as well. I'm not a pitcher so I don't know how much effort that takes or whatnot -- but it was huge. I don't necessarily expect him to do that every game or every time he has a bullpen day, but it was big today and we needed it.”