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Hudson away? Sánchez, Doo keep Cards at bay

@AnthonyDiComo
October 12, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- When asked Friday afternoon about closer Daniel Hudson missing Game 1 of the National League Championship Series due to the birth of his child, Nationals manager Dave Martinez offered words of encouragement while acknowledging the obvious: “We’re going to miss him.” Hudson had been one of the

ST. LOUIS -- When asked Friday afternoon about closer Daniel Hudson missing Game 1 of the National League Championship Series due to the birth of his child, Nationals manager Dave Martinez offered words of encouragement while acknowledging the obvious: “We’re going to miss him.”

Hudson had been one of the few reliable options in Martinez’s bullpen -- at points, perhaps the only one. Without him, the Nats faced the prospect of dipping heavily into a collection of relievers that contributed to Washington’s league-worst 5.66 regular-season bullpen ERA.

Then Aníbal Sánchez carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Busch Stadium, and the Nationals needed no one else but Sean Doolittle in their 2-0 win over the Cardinals on Friday night.

That’s one solution.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 11 WSH 2, STL 0 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 12 WSH 3, STL 1 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 14 WSH 8, STL 1 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 15 WSH 7, STL 4 Watch

“He picked us up today, big time,” Martinez said. “That was huge, just to go from him straight to Doolittle.”

Not until Friday morning did Martinez learn his closer would land on the paternity list. While Martinez was happy to give Hudson the chance to be with his wife, he understood what it might mean for his end-of-game strategy. No Nationals reliever has been as steady as Hudson, a midseason trade acquisition who hasn’t allowed an earned run since August.

And unlike in previous rounds, Martinez wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap between his starters and late-inning relievers with other starting pitchers. In a best-of-seven series with only two off-days, Max Scherzer and friends were needed elsewhere.

Enter Sánchez, who had pitched in the eighth inning or later in just one of his last 81 regular and postseason starts. Watching Sánchez work Friday amidst a low-40s October chill, Martinez, out of superstition, refused to slip a jacket over his Nationals sweatshirt. Even when Sánchez allowed a two-out single to José Martínez in the eighth to break up the no-hitter, Martinez held firm, calling on Doolittle but keeping his jacket unused.

Like Sánchez, Doolittle wasn’t an obvious candidate to stretch beyond his usual workload. The left-hander went two and a half months without recording more than three outs in a game, in part because of knee tendinitis and fatigue. He did snap that streak in NLDS Game 4, however, and had retired nine consecutive batters entering the NLCS.

Now it’s 13. Whether due to his manager’s sartorial decisions or not, Doolittle buzzed through the final four outs with much the same ease that Sánchez retired the first 23: he began by inducing three consecutive groundouts, then blew a fastball past Marcell Ozuna at 95 mph to end the game.

“It was just about finding a way to maximize our strengths and give us a chance to win,” Doolittle said.

Friday, that meant using only two pitchers on a night when Hudson, Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin were unavailable. Until NLCS Game 1, the Nationals had mostly used starting pitchers to solve their bullpen conundrum, eschewing their middle relievers in favor of less conventional strategies.

Dress for the NLCS: Get your Nats gear here

Not only was that an untenable option in the NLCS, but Hudson’s absence compounded the issue. Even if Sánchez pitched well, it was difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Nationals might avoid turning to Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney or some other bullpen arm.

That Sánchez and Doolittle carried the Nationals was, in catcher Yan Gomes’ words, “our best situation.” Hudson will be back in time for Game 2. Doolittle appears to be rounding into form. And Scherzer will be there at the start, hoping to reduce the need for all of them. Washington’s season-long bullpen woes may not have disappeared on Friday, but the Nationals once again figured out a way to make it work.

“I think the mood of the guys in the bullpen, we really wanted to find a way to pick [Hudson] up and allow him to enjoy a really special moment with his wife and his family,” Doolittle said. “We’re obviously looking forward to having him back because he's been so huge for us, but I think it went really well. … It felt really good to be able to seal it.”

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo, Instagram and Facebook.