-- What’s the status of center fielder Victor Robles, who missed the final three games of the series?
-- And who was going to start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series in St. Louis after Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin were so taxed in the last week?
Some answers arrived Thursday afternoon. Suzuki had X-rays on his left hand, and the results were negative. He was to be evaluated for a possible concussion after the team arrived in St. Louis, but Manager Dave Martinez said he’s expected to be cleared to play.
Robles is still working his way back from a strained hamstring and the Nationals want to test it with running drills at Busch Stadium Friday afternoon. If Robles can’t go, Michael A. Taylor has been solid both offensively and defensively in his place.
And Aníbal Sánchez, the Nationals’ 35-year-old fourth starter, will take the ball against the Cardinals’ Miles Mikolas in the NLCS opener Friday evening.
Martinez provided an upbeat account of Suzuki’s health before the team left Los Angeles. “He says he feels good. I talked to him this morning, says he feels good," Martinez said. "We’ll get him some treatment today, and he should be ready to go tomorrow.”
The manager has not mapped out his rotation beyond Sánchez in Game 1. He planned to dive into numbers and scenarios with the club’s analytics team on their flight from Los Angeles to St. Louis.
Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt did announce Thursday that he will go with Adam Wainwright in Game 2 and ace Jack Flaherty in Game 3. The Nationals’ plans are a bit more complicated after a trying series against the Dodgers.
They needed Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin to shoulder a heavy load while they tried to avoid using most of their inconsistent middle relievers. Strasburg leads all postseason pitchers with 224 pitches across three appearances: He threw three innings of relief in the wild-card game against Milwaukee, six innings in Game 2 of the NLDS and six innings in Game 5 on Wednesday. Scherzer is fourth with an even 200 pitches. Corbin isn’t too far behind with 164.
Martinez used them each at least once out of the bullpen. It was a necessary strategy to beat the Dodgers and their stacked lineup. It also looked unsustainable across a seven-game series. Martinez is mindful of that heading in to the NLCS. He also kept with his approach of winning the contest at hand and worrying about the next game later.
“These games right here, you try to go 1-0, like we’ve done all year long, and you try to win that first game,” Martinez said. “These guys understand what we’re playing for, but with that being said, you got to make sure we have our starting pitchers ready to go each game.”
Sánchez gave up one run in five innings in a Game 3 matchup with the Dodgers. The Nationals lost that game because Corbin struggled in relief, but it underscored Sánchez’s value to the club. He has been solid since he came off the injured list in mid-May. The veteran’s mix of seven pitches handcuffed the Dodgers’ lineup. He made one start against the Cardinals this season and gave up three runs in five innings.
Suzuki caught every one of Sánchez’s starts before the catcher was sidelined by right elbow inflammation in September, continuing the success and rhythm they found as teammates with the Atlanta Braves in 2018.
Now, with Suzuki receiving encouraging news, it seems they could be paired again for the first NLCS game in Nationals history.
The injury to Suzuki appeared far worse Wednesday evening, after the pitch glanced off his wrist and hit him in the head. He was down in the batter’s box before rising onto his knees. The moment quieted the ballpark and forced Martinez to run out of the dugout to check on his catcher.
Suzuki later said he felt lucky. The high-and-tight fastball hit his wrist, and that redirected it away from his face. The flap on his batting helmet also may have helped limit the injury..
If he is healthy enough to start Friday, there will be baseball matters to tend to. Suzuki allowed 45 of the 50 base runners against him to steal safely in the regular season. The Dodgers Cody Bellinger, not a particularly fast runner, swiped second against him three times in the NLDS.
The Cardinals were tied with the Nationals for third in the major leagues with 116 steals this season. Yan Gomes is a better defensive catcher than Suzuki. But Suzuki is familiar with Sánchez and offers more upside at the plate.
“That’s going to be the key for every pitcher in this series right now is to hold the runners on first because we need to help the catcher,” Sánchez said. “It’s part of the game. You have to do your best to keep those guys on first base. Make some type of different moves. Hold the ball. Whatever you have to do to keep those guys [close] and help the catcher to keep the score close in the game.”