WASHINGTON -- The Nationals devised a pitching plan so crazy they thought it just might work -- using starters as relievers on a nightly basis, saving side sessions for late-inning relief appearances and treating each installment of the National League Division Series with the urgency of an elimination game.
Everything was going according to plan again at Nationals Park on Sunday night, when after five brilliant innings from Aníbal Sánchez, manager Dave Martinez turned to Patrick Corbin to bridge the gap from starter to the back end of the bullpen. But the plan backfired, and now the Nationals are on the brink of elimination.
Corbin began the sixth inning with a one-run lead, but by the time a nightmare of a frame ended, seven two-out runs had crossed the plate and the Dodgers had seized control of the NLDS en route to a 10-4 victory. Los Angeles leads the series two games to one, with a chance to advance to the NL Championship Series on Monday night at Nationals Park.
“It just stinks,” Corbin said. “I feel like I let these guys down.”
Corbin was pitching on two days’ rest, making his first relief appearance since Sept. 29, 2017, after tossing 107 pitches during his start in Game 1 on Thursday. It is a lot to ask, but Corbin and the entire Nats rotation have embraced the idea to take the ball whenever Martinez gives it to them. At some point, however, pitching so frequently on short rest can come with diminishing returns.
Corbin began the inning by giving up a leadoff single to Cody Bellinger before striking out the next two batters. Then, David Freese poked a single through the right side of the infield, and Russell Martin put the Dodgers ahead with a two-run double. Corbin issued a walk to Chris Taylor before Enrique Hernández delivered another two-run double and, after intentionally walking Max Muncy, Corbin’s night was done, a 35-pitch disaster that could keep him out for the rest of the series.
Corbin allowed a .142 batting average with two strikes this season, but he lacked a put-away pitch on Sunday. Three of the hits he surrendered in the sixth inning came with two strikes.
“I don’t think people understand how difficult what Max did the other night really is,” reliever Sean Doolittle said referring to Scherzer’s scoreless eighth inning in relief Friday. “It’s not easy to do that.”
For good measure, the rest of the Nationals' bullpen showcased why the Nationals were forced to deploy such a desperate strategy in the first place. Wander Suero came on in relief of Corbin and promptly served up a three-run homer to Justin Turner. Fernando Rodney walked a pair, gave up a hit and uncorked a wild pitch during a stressful 31-pitch seventh inning, although he escaped with no runs allowed. Hunter Strickland gave up a two-run homer in the ninth to Martin -- the ninth homer he’s surrendered in his postseason career over 13 innings, adding to the record he already owned for a reliever.
Martinez chose Corbin over the rest of his relievers and instead of sticking with Sánchez, who despite having thrown just 87 pitches, gave up some hard contact in the fifth inning, including a solo homer to Muncy.
"I trust Pat,” Martinez said. “He's been unbelievable all year. And I would do it again. I really would. He was the guy. I just feel bad for him because he went out there, gave us everything he had.”
And now the Nationals face a must-win Game 4 on Monday. In Division Series in the current 2-2-1 format, teams to take a 2-1 lead have gone on to win the series 39 of 52 times (75%).
"All hands on deck tomorrow," Martinez said. "We are going to come out, we're going to fight, and those guys know what we're playing for, and we want to go to L.A.
"That's all this means. I told them that's all this [loss] means -- we would have to go to L.A. again."