In Tuesday’s wild-card victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, Stephen Strasburg pitched three dominant innings in relief of ace Max Scherzer to pick up the win. On Friday, in Washington’s 4-2 triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Scherzer returned the favor by throwing a lights-out eighth inning to preserve the lead that Strasburg helped build with a strong, six-inning start.
For the Nationals, whose bullpen futility in playoffs past has been their undoing and is surpassed only by their historic bullpen futility during the 2019 regular season, this is not an insignificant development.
This isn’t the first time Washington has gone all desperate times/desperate measures in the postseason. In fact, the last time the Nats were in the playoffs, in 2017, Scherzer came out of the bullpen. But that didn’t happen until Game 5 of the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs, and it backfired miserably, with Mad Max having a nightmare fifth inning that turned a 4-3 lead into a 7-5 deficit and ultimately resulted in a heartbreaking series loss, Washington’s fourth in four postseason appearances. This time around, the Nationals and Davey Martinez — making his managerial playoff debut — are committing early and often. And it’s working wonders.
“Before the series started, before we even got to the playoffs, our game plan was to try to utilize these guys the best way possible without disrupting their starts,” Martinez said after Washington tied the NLDS at a game apiece. “And we talked to all of them, and they have all been on board. So it’s just part of it. When you get to these games, I’ve said this before, you’re playing to win one game. Every day’s crucial. We had a chance to win today. And I told Max, if the game’s close, then we’ll use you. And we did that.”
The Nationals are hardly the first team to go that route. Five times in MLB history there have been nine or more pitchers who started and worked in relief during the same postseason. Two of those times were in 2017 and 2018. But it’s rare that a team has employed the strategy so aggressively and so early on: According to Elias Sports Bureau data, Washington is just the fourth team ever to have two hurlers pull double duty within the first three games of the playoffs. Two of the other three clubs — the 1908 Cubs and the 1999 Atlanta Braves — made it to the World Series.
As tragically flawed as the Nats’ bullpen is, it doesn’t seem possible Washington could advance that far. Then again, coming back from a two-run deficit against Brewers relief robot Josh Hader didn’t seem possible. Nor did beating Clayton Kershaw and the mighty Dodgers in their home park. But both of these things happened. And they happened because Martinez and the Nationals are all about the here and now. Pitch first, ask questions later.
“We viewed it as a must-win game,” said reliever Sean Doolittle, who worked the seventh and served as the bridge between Strasburg and Scherzer.
“It was all hands on deck,” added closer Daniel Hudson, who took over in the ninth for Scherzer and wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam to secure the win. “Everybody’s up for whatever. Stephen going out in the wild-card game and throwing three shutdown innings. Max coming out there and doing what he did tonight. We’ll see what the plan is the rest of the way.
“I know we have all the confidence in all the guys down there that they’re going to get the job done. But to have those extra guys come down there and be a reinforcement for us is awesome.”
It also was necessary.
“It’s just what the team needs,” said Scherzer, who struck out the side in the eighth and was so amped up coming out of the pen that his fastball hit 99 mph, a few ticks above his norm. “When your number gets called, you gotta go out there and produce, and you gotta bring everything you got. [Strasburg] did it out of the pen the other night, and then he threw a great start tonight. When your number gets called, go out there and compete with everything you got.”
Even Strasburg, a Tommy John survivor who has had more than his share of injuries during his 10-year career and was famously shut down before the 2012 playoffs to protect his arm, is all-in.
“I’m very routine-oriented, and I would say my younger self would be a little bit alarmed by it,” said the veteran righty, who allowed a run on three hits and struck out 10 over six innings on Friday, despite having just two days of rest since his wild-card relief outing. “But now it’s kind of, at this point in my career, it’s — you’re exactly right, it’s just another challenge.”
Speaking of challenges, now Martinez must figure out who will oppose Cy Young contender Hyun-Jin Ryu in Sunday’s Game 3 back in D.C.
Originally, it was supposed to be Scherzer, who started Tuesday’s wild-card game and would have been working on regular rest. But after channeling his inner-MadBum on Friday, Sunday’s assignment is now up in the air. Martinez might tap Anibal Sanchez, a reliable No. 4 starter who has yet to pitch this postseason. Or he might stick with Scherzer, depending on how the three-time Cy Young winner rebounds from his setup duty in Game 2. Not that Mad Max cares one bit about when he gets the ball.
“It’s their call,” Scherzer said. “It’s not my call. I can only tell ’em how I feel. Whenever they want me to pitch, I’ll pitch. They want me out of the pen, I’ll pitch out of the pen. I really don’t care. Whatever it takes to help this ball club win.”