Before the game, Martinez explained that he spent the past few days running through scenarios, imagining what could happen.
But on the list of possibilities, the one that materialized was almost best-case scenario: Though the Astros pushed Scherzer to the brink, he got them through five with a chance to beat the most dominant starter of these playoffs, Gerrit Cole. Under those circumstances, winning would not be a bonus, but a must. And losing with anyone but his most trusted — and, in most cases, best compensated — arms would spawn years of “what-ifs.” The Nationals had seen that movie before.
“It was all based on how long Max could go,” Martinez said. “As the game was rolling along and I started watching Max’s pitch count, I knew there was going to become an inning that we needed to pitch Corbin.”
So any lingering concern about Corbin’s ability to adjust to relief duties after some ups and downs out of the bullpen in the NLCS — even worry that he might not be able to start Game 3 on Friday as scheduled — paled in comparison to the level of concern fostered by other relief options. Statistically speaking, no team has ever made a World Series with a worse bullpen. Anecdotally speaking, no franchise has seen as many trajectory-altering games slip away in the hands of its relievers than the Nationals have in the past half-decade. Martinez did not want to add to this list.
So he called on Corbin, who worked a scoreless sixth. He threw 21 pitches, which wouldn’t automatically preclude him from starting Game 3. Another inning of work probably would have forced the Nationals to push Corbin back, but Aníbal Sánchez could start Game 3, leaving Corbin for Game 4. All would not be lost in that scenario.
But Martinez said later he never entertained the notion of using Corbin for more than one inning. So with two of the best right-handed hitters in baseball looming to start the seventh, Martinez decided to use Tanner Rainey.
Rainey is the hard-throwing righty who features dangerous stuff against right-handers — but who also has a dangerous propensity to lose the strike zone. As it happened, he found too much of the strike zone to George Springer, who punished him with a solo homer to dead center. Then he struck out José Altuve. The lead, 5-2 when he started the inning, was down to 5-3 when he departed.
By then, Martinez had long since started counting outs, and Rainey hadn’t hit his quota. Martinez wanted him to handle the seventh and said he had mapped that scenario out beforehand because Rainey had been pitching so well lately. He was going to trust Rainey, not just Hudson and Doolittle.
Rainey pitched around the lefty Michael Brantley and into a more favorable matchup with right-handed-hitting Alex Bregman — if one can call any matchup with an MVP candidate favorable. Rainey walked him, at which point Martinez was forced to turn to Hudson sooner.
“I just finished talking to [Rainey],” Martinez said. “I told him: ‘You’ll be back out there tomorrow. We need you. You got a big out for us.’ And it was a big out.”
But because Rainey got just one out, the Nationals needed eight more and had two trusted pitchers available to get them.
Hudson got the call first, but an infield single loaded the bases, and the Nationals’ hard-fought, unlikely lead was no longer safe.
If, long before the seventh, someone had sketched out a scenario in which the Nationals lost Game 1 to Cole, the Nationals wouldn’t have batted an eye. That would have made sense.
But as soon as the Nationals had a lead — a three-run lead to boot — losing would become more devastating than disappointing. No game punishes missed opportunities like baseball, and few teams afford their opponents fewer opportunities than these Astros.
So Hudson stood in the middle of three Astros runners, 60 feet from one of the many formidable Astros hitters, one of two proven shields against a potential Houston comeback. He struck out Yordan Álvarez to escape the jam. He got two more outs in the eighth, but not before two hits pushed another run across and left a man at second.
At that point, with the left-handed-hitting Brantley due and the tying run in scoring position, Martinez didn’t have to deliberate much. He called on Doolittle, who pitched them out of the eighth and through the heart of a punishing order in the ninth.
Hudson threw 21 pitches. Doolittle threw just 13. Both are expected to be available for Game 2. If the Nationals are to win, they will almost certainly have to.
And as for Corbin, neither he nor his manager was sure he will be rested enough to pitch Game 3 on Friday. Without him, the Nationals’ bullpen might not have survived Game 1.