The question now, though, is whether Manager Dave Martinez pursued a sensible goal in Game 5 — maintain a small deficit to give the offense a chance to catch up — to the detriment of those relievers. It is also whether he set up the Nationals to fall victim to bullpen overexposure, which already claimed one team this postseason. Why exactly did Hudson, who allowed a run in the eighth, throw 20 more pitches in the ninth with what started as a four-run deficit?
“We thought we could get him up to about 35 pitches; that would be his max,” Martinez said, explaining why he went back to Hudson. “And he was right there.”
Neither Doolittle nor Hudson worried about overexposure in Game 5. Doolittle admitted he liked the work because he felt “a little bit rusty” from the five-day layoff since they last appeared in Game 1. But the worry now is whether they could be overexposed for Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7.
In the American League Championship Series, the New York Yankees stretched their bullpen thintrying to compete with the Astros. They turnstiled relievers and eventually pitched only relievers in Game 6. The bullpen held its own until José Altuve crushed a home run against the team’s best reliever, Aroldis Chapman, to end their season. Another Yankees reliever, Zack Britton, saw the Astros’ success against their bullpen as a byproduct of familiarity.
“The more times you face guys as relievers, you get overexposed,” Britton told reporters afterward. “That’s what I always say, that’s why we’re relievers and not starters. You can overexpose guys. It’s inevitable.”
The results did not bolster those worries for Doolittle, who threw 14 pitches and overlapped with one batter he’d seen in Game 1 (Carlos Correa), but it did with Hudson. The veteran right-hander faced 10 batters and allowed a quarter of the game’s 16 hardest-hit balls. George Springer, in his second at-bat against Hudson, smoked a ball 111.3-mph bomb — the night’s highest exit velocity — into the seats for a two-run home run.
Houston nicked Hudson for one run on three hits in Game 1, but he didn’t believe the sharp contact in the second outing was connected to familiarity. He knew as soon as he saw the double switch that he’d be asked for two innings too, so he crossed off “mental preparation” on the list of possible explanations for the struggles. He settled on poor execution and getting tired at the end of his outing. Springer’s home run came on his 36th pitch, the most he’d thrown in one outing in 15 months.
Both Nationals relievers believe their styles of play don’t lend to overexposure. Doolittle almost always throws a high fastball and isn’t shy about it. Hudson uses his fastball and slider 87 percent of the time. The right-hander shrugged off the idea that pitching against hitters once might give them a better idea of how he’d attack them the next time. He believes they should know by looking at the numbers.
“I’ve been kind of up front, I do one or two things,” Hudson said. “I don’t really have any tricks up my sleeve. I’ve been doing it for the last four or five years and those guys over there are smart enough to know that.”
“If I go out there and execute my pitches and pitch to my strengths … I feel pretty confident that I can get the job done,” he added. “I just made a couple bad pitches to some good hitters and it is what it is.”
This holds particularly true in the most clutch moments. Doolittle and Hudson both asserted they’d go with their best against a hitter in a crucial situation. They both have secondary pitches to unbalance the hitter — Doolittle’s slider, Hudson’s sinker — but wanted those to mostly remain weapons in idea only for their highest-leverage pitches. The mind-set is don’t get beat with your third pitch.
Hudson didn’t on Sunday. Springer homered at the end of a fastball-slider sequence on a 96-mph heater which ended up straight down the pipe. If the reliever executed the pitch where he wanted to, he likes his chances against Springer. But he didn’t put it low and away, and he left the mound afterward frustrated and with the job undone. The Nationals can no longer afford something like that, and they must hope the chances of it happening again didn’t increase because Hudson pitched this time.