WASHINGTON — The conundrum, what it is the Washington Nationals may wrestle with, is when a baseball game is still a baseball game, when it is worth committing to fully, and then how the fourth week of October might complicate it all a little more.
They are, as it is, dead even with the Houston Astros after four games of the World Series, which is admirable even in the context of those four games, that being that the Nationals have been two wins from their first championship since Wednesday.
What Saturday night’s Game 4 — a run-away 8-1 win for the Houston Astros — set up is another round of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg against Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. What it also reintroduced is the nagging suspicion the Nationals are tight-roping significant portions of these games, and if the Astros are going to continue to force early bullpen innings, and if the Nationals are not going to hit exactly as they did in the first two games, then they ought to get to work on that net.
Some time had passed since the Nationals’ bullpen reminded anyone that it was, indeed, at the end of the day, at the end of the game, the Nationals’ bullpen. For that, it can be commended.
Through the eight-game October winning streak, manager Davey Martinez (and, presumably, general manager Mike Rizzo) endeavored to shorten the rotation of relievers, mostly to Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, and feathered in some Patrick Corbin and Tanner Rainey.
The result, over those eight wins — the last two in the division series, all four of the NLCS, and the first two of the World Series — was 22 ⅓ relief innings and four runs allowed. In Friday night’s loss, managing in a three-run deficit, Martinez got 3 ⅔ more scoreless innings from Fernando Rodney, Joe Ross and Wander Suero.
So, really, the Nationals still were operating in the black, seeing as the loss cost them little in the way of leverage relievers as the series continued.
The issue, turned out, was the Nationals’ definition of leverage, that coming in the seventh inning of Game 4, as the Astros continued to pull away from two unsightly losses in Houston that began the series. There was another issue, and that is, when you have two — and only two — sturdy relievers, is there such a thing as leverage in a three-run deficit? How about at seven runs? And maybe that’s the answer. Because without honoring the first, you’re opening yourself up to the second.
Because, pulling from the shadows of his bullpen, and given one of his more trusted bullpen elements — Corbin — started Game 4, Martinez was again in the position of being all in (with Doolittle and/or Hudson) or in the mood to gamble from three runs back, and chose to roll again. Rainey and Rodney then combined to put Game 4 away, that being for the Astros. Whether the Nationals could have come back from four runs over the final three innings is speculation only, and whether to spend Doolittle and/or Hudson to find out is the musings of a man with a long, full bullpen.
This is, either way, how it looks when a manager hopes to maneuver four starters, one of whom is a part-time reliever, and two reliable relievers through an entire month.
Saturday night was actually the second consecutive game in which it appeared part of the in-game decisions were based on the short bullpen and when to fire those bullets. On Friday night, in the fourth inning of a 2-1 game, with Nationals starter Anibal Sanchez at 65 pitches and unlikely to go much further, Martinez had Sanchez bat with one out and a runner at third base. Sanchez struck out, of course. The Nationals never did pull even and eventually lost by three runs.
If the bullpen scares him a little bit, and he’d have every right to it, then Martinez would be reluctant to leave five innings out there. As it happened, Sanchez was able to record only four more outs (and allow two more runs), and the game never felt very close.
Asked afterward about the opportunity to pinch-hit for Sanchez, Martinez admitted, “I seriously thought about it, yeah.”
He’s also four games into the World Series, has other issues to consider -- the Nationals have scored twice in two games, for one, first against a wobbly Zack Greinke and then what turned out to be a taut Jose Urquidy, and are one for 19 with runners in scoring position in those games — and has gotten — or asked for — eight outs from his two best relievers.
Again, it is a question of what is leverage and what is pipe dream, what is smart and what unnecessarily taxes a bullpen for tomorrow, which is a terrible position to be in some days, worse when those days are in late October.
“For me,” Martinez said late Saturday night, “you don’t chase wins.”
By that, he meant, from behind, or from far behind, which, apparently, is three or four runs. So, he’d sat through a seventh inning in which he summoned Rainey, who went walk, walk, fly out. Then Rodney, who went single, home run. The Astros’ lead went from 4-1 to 8-1, so at least the decisions got easier from there.
“Come tomorrow, [if] we’re up, 2-0, and all of a sudden you’re in the seventh inning, you have to use Hudson for two innings [or] you have to use Doolittle for two innings,” Martinez said. “You want those guys ready to pitch. I know we got a day off the next day. All this we talked about before the game. But [tonight], you’re down still three runs and, like I said, Rainey has done well for us. It just happens he couldn’t throw strikes tonight.”
There are no pretty answers. And, if they’re fortunate, and Max is Max and Stras is Stras and somebody can get a hit with runners in scoring position, there’ll hardly be any more questions. By then, and with any luck, the Nationals will have either won the series or played themselves into a Game 7, at which point we’ll have to start the whole conversation over again.
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