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Dodgers highlight a critical problem: Nats still lack a trustworthy third bullpen arm

The three middle relievers who appeared — Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland and Fernando Rodney — and the two who didn't, Austin Voth and Wander Suero, all highlighted the same point. The Nationals don't have anywhere to turn outside Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The Washington Nationals could get through the wild-card game by hiding their bullpen, but the National League Division Series is different. The best-of-five format demands teams pitch their middle relievers, and when the Nationals finally did Thursday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers exposed and exploited their greatest weakness, eventually hammering home runs through the night sky to punctuate what became a 6-0, series-opening loss.

The defeat raised other concerns, like the offense (two hits) or the defense (Howie Kendrick’s two errors), but neither looked dire. The bullpen did. The Nationals’ three relievers — Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland — couldn’t maintain a two-run deficit and combined for four hits, two walks and four earned runs across two innings.

It raised again a question that has hung over the team all season: Did Manager Dave Martinez put in the wrong pitchers, or does he have no right answers in relief?

Boswell: The Nats picked wrong time to show the worst of themselves in Game 1 of NLDS

The answer is unclear. It might be both. The issue hasn’t been forced until now because of the strength of the starting rotation. The Nationals hid their middle relief not just against the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday but through most of the season as starters often carried the team through seven innings. The bullpen used to blow up in the eighth, when it lacked a setup man, but those meltdowns subsided once the Nationals acquired Daniel Hudson, a second trustworthy reliever to pair with Sean Doolittle. They mostly solidified the final two innings.

But as the margins shrink and the moments magnify in the postseason, it’s impossible to count on seven innings from the starter. Many, such as Patrick Corbin on Thursday, can only go six. This creates a yawning, one-inning chasm between the starter and Hudson and Doolittle. Thursday night revealed the Nationals had never found a third pitcher reliable in high-leverage spots, that they had papered over a problem good offense could poke holes in. Their eighth-inning trouble came an inning early.

When Corbin reached 107 pitches after the sixth, Martinez needed a reliever. He looked to his bullpen and saw Rainey, Rodney, Strickland, Doolittle, Hudson as well as new roster additions Austin Voth and Wander Suero. He didn’t want to fire his A-side relievers too early and Voth (too inexperienced for such a high-leverage spot) and Suero (too inconsistent) seemed untenable. The bridge from starter to reliable relievers had been moved up, but it was still just as daunting. And the options are no better now than they used to be.

Martinez chose Rainey, the right-hander who could hit 100 mph. But the Dodgers are more immune to velocity than any team in baseball. They slugged a major league-leading .542 against pitches 95 mph and faster this season — 123 points higher than league average. Rainey struck out the leadoff hitter, then issued a walk and allowed a single. The likely NL MVP, Cody Bellinger, was coming to the plate.

Martinez needed a different arm. He doesn’t have a traditional left-handed specialist in the bullpen because the one they traded for at the deadline, Roenis Elías, is hurt and he likes Doolittle in the eighth inning or later. He chose Rodney because he likes how the veteran’s change-up plays against left-handed hitters, though it was an odd choice considering Rodney had the bullpen’s second-worst on-base-plus-slugging-percentage against left-handed hitters this season (.784). Yet all his previous points still stood and the only other option, Strickland, was the only one worse against left-handed hitters (1.291).

Rodney struck out Bellinger; result over process. He got ahead of the next hitter, Chris Taylor, 0-2 but then lost him to a walk. Martinez later identified that as the key to the inning. The Nationals had no one else warming, so they stuck with Rodney to face another left-handed hitter, Max Muncy. Martinez trusted Rodney in big situations, and it couldn’t get bigger than bases loaded, two out on the road in the most important moment of the season. The manager thought his reliever would keep throwing the change-up, but Muncy singled to right on a fastball. The deficit deepened from two to four. The Nationals’ chances of winning plummeted. Was that Martinez’s fault?

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The next inning showed how the only other option by the manager’s philosophy, Strickland, wasn’t any better. The right-hander faced two left-handed batters, including pinch-hitter Gavin Lux in his first MLB postseason plate appearance, and allowed two home runs. Strickland’s last four matchups against true left-handed hitters: Home run, home run, double, home run.

The Dodgers highlighted the gulf between these two teams in matchup situations in the seventh inning. Manager Dave Roberts summoned Adam Kolarek, the reliever they acquired at the deadline specifically to get left-handed hitters out, and he struck out Juan Soto on three pitches. He jogged off, night completed.

The Nationals have a reliever like Kolarek. His name is Doolittle. But that would’ve meant using him with a deficit and before the eighth inning. This strategy might seem uncomfortable — it shuffles roles and creates uncertainty — but it also might be necessary. The Nationals needed to give themselves the best chance possible to escape the seventh inning because holding and overcoming deficits like those are how they got here in the first place. They showed it throughout the season and again with their stunning victory in the wild-card game. The Nationals scored the most runs in the eighth and ninth innings this year in the National League.

If Doolittle gets used early, there are other buttons for Martinez to press. He can matchup later or lean on Hudson for six outs (as managers have in the past). He has options, and Thursday night suggests he should use Doolittle however he can to minimize the potential impact of Bellinger or any other Dodgers left-handed hitter in a crucial spot. Thursday night’s loss gave the Nationals a sour start to a series. Another one Friday night would have graver implications.

More Nationals and MLB playoffs:

Nationals’ NLDS roster analysis: A seven-man bullpen and a six-man bench

Anthony Rendon is relaxed and candid ahead of potentially his final run with the Nats

Max Scherzer’s catchers have a story to tell

New York to new life: How a humbling sweep set the Nationals straight

The Year of the Home Run meets October pitching

Every MLB playoff team’s fatal flaw. The Nationals’ should come as no surprise.

MLB playoff bracket and schedule