HOUSTON -- As Max Scherzer's pitch count rose, spiking early Tuesday evening and continuing to climb throughout the middle innings, the prevailing thought in the Nationals’ bullpen was that at some point, Scherzer would find a way to correct the issue. As a precaution, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle began warming earlier than usual, without ever expecting the bullpen door to swing open before the seventh or eighth.
Scherzer didn’t, however, faring well enough to hold a lead but throwing 112 pitches in five innings. And so manager Dave Martinez, who has spent the bulk of October slapping patches on a bullpen that carried MLB's worst ERA into the postseason, found himself considering another puzzle.
Once again, Martinez pieced it together: Scherzer to Patrick Corbin, Corbin to Tanner Rainey, Rainey to Hudson and Doolittle. The result wasn’t perfect. But it was enough for the Nats’ bullpen to shed some more of its negative reputation in a 5-4 win over the Astros in Game 1 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park.
“It’s a gutty group of guys down there, man,” general manager Mike Rizzo said, when asked about the bullpen’s former issues. “They’re sick and tired of hearing about it, I know that much.”
In Rizzo’s estimation, “necessity is the mother of invention,” which is why the Nationals began using their starting pitchers as relievers this postseason. Initially, Stephen Strasburg and Scherzer played roles. But as the Nats won their way deeper into October, Corbin became their most flexible arm, starting two games and appearing in relief in three others.
Tuesday at Minute Maid Park marked the fourth. On what would have been his regular between-starts bullpen day, Corbin faced four batters in the sixth inning and retired three of them, two via strikeout.
“I just try to be available whenever they need me,” Corbin said.
Despite his hesitancy to use any full-time relievers other than Hudson and Doolittle this month, Martinez wanted to limit Corbin to a single inning, thereby keeping him available for a start later this week. That forced the Nationals to turn in the seventh to Rainey, who allowed a leadoff homer to George Springer and then walked two batters; then to Hudson, who loaded the bases but escaped that jam. An inning later, Hudson allowed a run of his own on a 377-foot Springer double, but he and Doolittle combined to strand him in scoring position as the potential tying run.
The ninth, at least, was stress-free, as Doolittle zipped through the middle of Houston’s lineup in order. And with that, the Nationals took Game 1 in much the same fashion they’ve won all postseason. Entering Tuesday, the Nats had relied on their four starters plus Hudson and Doolittle for 90 percent of their postseason innings. Once they took an early lead in World Series Game 1, that wasn’t about to change.
“We’re pitching with a lot of confidence,” Doolittle said. “I think we all have different strengths. And it does help when you have some of the best pitchers on the planet, our starting pitchers, that are willing to come down and help us out every once in a while.”
It is a strategy that continues to evolve. After Game 1, Martinez said he planned to sit with Corbin and pitching coach Paul Menhart to determine if Corbin will start Game 3 or Game 4, with Aníbal Sánchez theoretically lined up for the other. Scherzer isn’t likely to pitch in relief this series, but Corbin still could again.
Then, there is the matter of fatigue. In addition to appearing in a majority of Washington’s postseason games, Hudson and Doolittle logged heavy workloads down the stretch as the Nationals tried to earn a National League Wild Card spot. They are admittedly, in Doolittle’s words, a little tired. Cracks showed in the later innings Tuesday, when Springer homered in the seventh and came close to doing so again in the eighth, doubling off the top of the wall.
Whether Martinez’s bullpen patches can hold a bit longer may determine the outcome of the World Series.
“It’s in the tank,” Hudson said. “You’ve got to empty it at this point. We’ve got hopefully three more wins. That’s all we’ve got, six more games max. We’ll just get through it as best we can.”