This was important because it allowed Martinez to give Patrick Corbin the night off, when he might have otherwise pitched in relief. Martinez then was able to announce Thursday that Corbin would start Game 4 on Saturday. The decision suggests the left-hander won’t be available out of the bullpen for Friday’s Game 3, but it does not rule out the situation entirely.
Max Scherzer threw his side session Thursday night and won’t be available. Stephen Strasburg started Wednesday and won’t be available. Corbin remains the third-best option out of the bullpen, and the Nationals again could find themselves in a similar situation to Game 2, when they needed a reliever in the seventh.
Their starter, Strasburg, had given the team one more inning than Scherzer the night before, but he emptied the tank in the sixth to escape a two-on, two-out jam. Martinez wanted to stay away from Corbin, who threw 21 pitches in relief in Game 1, because the relief appearance already had altered the rotation, bumping Aníbal Sánchez to Game 3.
Game 2 would have been the first test of the Nationals’ radical pitching strategy of using starters as relievers, of relying on six pitchers throughout the postseason. The extra rest the Nationals banked during their six-day layoff between the National League Championship Series and the World Series was gone. Corbin stretched in the bullpen in his gray sweatsuit as catcher Kurt Suzuki smacked a home run to left to ignite the rally. Corbin eventually sat down as a few more bat-waves made all Martinez’s problems disappear. When asked whether he had been prepared to use Corbin, Martinez grinned. He admitted he wanted to stay away from the lefty but declined to delve into more detail.
“I’m glad I don’t have to think about that, honestly,” he said. “It worked out perfectly.”
The questions still remain for Game 3: If he has a chance to beat the third and final Astros ace in right-hander Zack Greinke, will Martinez compromise Corbin to maintain a tie or a small lead? Or would he try a less trustworthy reliever, such as Tanner Rainey or Fernando Rodney?
The Game 2 rally might give Martinez more flexibility in his answer because, in addition to not throwing Corbin, he rested his two trusted relievers, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle, after each went 1 ⅓ innings Tuesday. It wouldn’t have been abnormal for Hudson or Doolittle to pitch again Wednesday — Hudson threw 21 pitches and Doolittle 13 in Game 1 — but it provided extra rest headed into an off day for pitchers who always will take what they can get.
“It was huge,” Doolittle said of the rally’s domino effect. “Selfishly, it was awesome. I was really rooting hard for those guys [on offense]. We couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
Doolittle joked that Corbin wasn’t going to pitch Wednesday and only came down to stretch because he believes the team’s emergency reliever “secretly loves pitching out of the bullpen and hanging out with the guys.” Yet everyone, including Corbin, understands he might be needed out of the bullpen again — including in Game 3.
This was always the inherent risk of the Nationals’ starters-as-relievers strategy, but it’s only being exposed for the first time because of how the NLCS and NL Division Series played out. The best-of-five NLDS was short enough and the starters then fresh enough that the Nationals could navigate around the pitfalls of the strategy. Their starting pitching dominance in their NLCS sweep meant Hudson and Doolittle could usually pick up the outs left by the starters.
The Nationals will now do whatever they can to avoid using Corbin in Game 3. They signed him for six years and $140 million this offseason to start, and they’d have the upper hand if he starts what could still be a bullpen game against the Houston Astros in Game 4. Yet not using Corbin aggressively out of the bullpen conflicts with the Nationals’ win-now approach that paid off in a Game 1 win.
Sánchez’s last outing, 7⅔ innings of one-hit ball against the St. Louis Cardinals, was an outlier. He had managed five innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his previous start, and that’s a more realistic expectation for Friday. It’s especially true considering the difficulty of the Astros’ lineup, which has driven up the pitch counts of Scherzer (112 after five) and Strasburg (114 after six). The manager knows he needs his best arms on the mound at all times but must also weigh the present with the future. The bullpen’s gain is the rotation’s loss.
This much is true: If the bullpen has four innings to cover Friday, the Nationals need at least a third option beyond Doolittle and Hudson. This is a challenge considering Corbin’s success has coincided with struggles for Rainey, who was becoming Martinez’s third-most-trustworthy true reliever. The young, hard-throwing right-hander nearly melted down in Game 1, when he walked two and allowed a home run. Martinez later said he wouldn’t hesitate to use Rainey again, and he did in Game 2, when Rainey punctuated a perfect inning against the heart of the Astros lineup with a strikeout.
The manager is aware that this high-wire act is being tested. He knows capturing Game 3 means a crucial 3-0 lead with two games left at home to clinch, and that might require improvisation. If the Nationals’ worst-case scenario happens, if they’re forced to use Corbin in Game 3, Martinez did not hesitate to acknowledge the team could give the ball to someone other than their core four starters in Game 4.
“Yeah, it could be, yeah,” he said. “We’ll see. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
This emergency option is now deeply unlikely, but if it happens, the Nationals’ likeliest option beyond a taxed Scherzer on short rest is Joe Ross. The 26-year-old right-hander the only pitcher left on the roster who’s stretched out to throw a starter’s number of pitches. Ross hasn’t pitched in the postseason, and he turned in up-and-down results this season, but he could give the Nationals the innings they need.
Overall, a Ross start in the World Series still seems improbable. The Nationals will try to puzzle out a way to maximize the innings possible from their best arms as they have all postseason. But if they can’t, if situations dictate following that philosophy in Game 3 means using Corbin right now, that could still open the door for the unlikely to become reality.