The five-run victory didn’t include a traditional “save opportunity,” but it didn’t need to. Once the Cubs drew close and starter Joe Ross exited after 4⅓ innings, Martinez had a puzzle to piece together.
It was the manager’s first chance to roll out this thinned, rested, evolving bullpen for extended work. And he pressed all the right buttons, at least this time, for the Nationals’ fourth straight win, sixth in seven contests and 11th in 13. His relievers tallied the final 14 outs without giving up a run.
“We pieced everything together based on their lineup and our guys available,” Martinez said, adding that he “absolutely” managed the bullpen as if the score were tighter. “These guys came in and did a great job.”
When the Nationals put Doolittle on the injured list Sunday, announcing he had right knee tendinitis, it made sense in a few ways: Doolittle’s arm needed rest and his head needed to be cleared, and 10 days off, or more, were seen as an antidote for both. But the Nationals were also heading into a soft part of their schedule, not counting the Cubs, making the decision even more logical. There were four games against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, this series in Chicago, two with the last-place Baltimore Orioles next week and three with the NL-worst Miami Marlins next weekend. Then the New York Mets visit and competition picks up in early September.
Doolittle can be activated Wednesday, at the earliest, and has begun throwing off a mound. But if the Nationals wait until Sept. 1, three days beyond Doolittle’s minimum IL stint, their roster will expand to 40 players and he can be a de facto call-up. Martinez has left that open as a possibility. He’s confident in his high-leverage options while Doolittle recovers. He just hadn’t had much of a chance to use them.
That’s because the Nationals offense has yet to slow down or show any signs of doing so. It has scored seven or more runs in 10 of the past 13 games. Their starters had allowed two earned runs in 30⅔ innings before Ross took the mound. That hasn’t made for much late-inning drama. The only time there was some in the last week, in a 4-1 loss to the Pirates on Tuesday, the Nationals’ bullpen lost the game in the eighth and there was no save opportunity. There still hasn’t been one since Doolittle was sidelined, so Rodney, Hudson and Strickland haven’t really gotten to audition as the fill-in closer. And Martinez is fine with that.
“I like the fact that the games are lopsided right now,” Martinez said with a laugh. “When the game decides to not be lopsided, then we’ll make those decisions.”
Saturday threatened to turn into a tight contest after the Nationals took a five-run lead right away. Yan Gomes highlighted a four-run third by driving in two with a single. Ross, to that point, had held the Cubs down with a heavy diet of sinkers. But he allowed a run in the third and another in the fifth when Jonathan Lucroy punched a double into left, ending Ross’s outing at 88 pitches. Suero relieved him, in the thick of a jam, and stranded two runners in scoring position with a strikeout and a popup to third.
The Nationals still led, 5-2, and needed 12 more outs from their bullpen. They added another run in the sixth. Then Rainey worked a shaky, scoreless bottom half. Then Martinez’s critical decisions began.
The manager has pegged Strickland, Hudson and Rodney as his likely options for the seventh, eighth and ninth. He has not, however, specified an inning or role for any of the three righties. Instead, Doolittle’s absence should allow Martinez to tinker based on matchups and situations. It could lead to more inventive bullpen usage, rather than funneling everything to a designated closer, and make the Nationals a bit harder to prepare for. But that’s only if Martinez sticks to the promise of creativity and his pitchers perform.
“That’s a big plus for us,” Strickland said of himself, Rodney and Hudson being interchangeable. “Everybody’s done it.”
That showed against the Cubs, even as the deficit widened, even if Martinez wasn’t rolling his relievers into a high-pressure game. He went with Strickland in the seventh to face three right-handed hitters, and he struck out the side. He went with Rodney in the eighth, his spot when Doolittle was closing earlier this summer, and the 42-year-old went one-two-three on 12 pitches. The Nationals created more separation in the ninth, once Howie Kendrick doubled in Juan Soto, but Hudson was warming and entered anyway.
And he soon put the punctuation mark on Martinez’s plan, in yet another lopsided game, by calmly shutting the door.