The team’s ace, Max Scherzer, is unavailable after pitching five innings Tuesday. The Nationals’ No. 2 starter, Stephen Strasburg, might not be ready to go either. He gave his team three scoreless innings against the Brewers in his first appearance out of the bullpen in 243 career games to provide the stopgap between Scherzer and closer Daniel Hudson.
Strasburg struck out four and allowed two hits in the outing, and he said in the clubhouse afterward he didn’t know when he would be able to pitch again. He threw 34 pitches, far fewer than he would during a start on regular rest. But the leverage of the innings and the warmup that preceded them made this anything but normal. This uncertain schedule presents one of the largest challenges in what has been his most durable and dominant season. But he wasn’t thinking about that Tuesday night. Strasburg stood at the edge of the clubhouse celebration, sipping a Budweiser as his teammates sprayed beer everywhere.
“I’m just enjoying it right now,” he said.
General Manager Mike Rizzo, popping a postgame brew of his own, was in the same state of mind. He wasn’t sure how the Nationals might line up their rotation against the Dodgers beyond Game 1, and he needed time to think about it. His team had pulled off what seemed impossible until Juan Soto’s go-ahead hit in the eighth inning, and he was basking in it for the moment.
Corbin makes sense for Game 1. The left-hander never appeared Tuesday, and shortstop Trea Turner joked in his news conference after the game that he figured it would be Corbin — though he quickly added, “I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say that.”
The logic added up. Corbin will be on regular rest for Thursday night in Los Angeles after making his final regular season start Saturday. The Nationals cannot feel comfortable going up against the juggernaut Dodgers, an offensive power, winners of 106 games and the favorite to romp toward their third straight trip to the World Series. But Corbin gives the Nationals life. The left-hander blanked the Dodgers over seven innings in early May, his only start against them this season. He navigated around three hits and four walks while striking out eight.
If Strasburg isn’t ready by Game 2 on Friday, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez has expressed confidence in his fourth starter, Aníbal Sánchez, in this exact situation. He was asked in the last week of the regular season that, if Scherzer and Strasburg pitched in the wild-card game, would he like Sánchez on the road. He responded with a resounding yes.
Sánchez was in the bullpen for the wild-card game but was always an emergency-only option. Martinez has repeated all season the Nationals have a “Big Four” in the rotation and that, despite the pedigree and performance of their top three arms, Sánchez could throw just as well as any of them.
The veteran right-hander did experience a remarkable turnaround this season. He seemed destined for one of the worst seasons of his career. He struggled to stay down in the zone, got hit hard and landed on the injured list with a hamstring strain in May with a 5.10 ERA. Since returning from the IL on May 29, Sánchez has a 3.42 ERA in 123⅔ innings. He has been a skid-stopper and a streak-starter. He has given the Nationals exactly what they need, at times as dominant as anyone in the rotation. He is one of the many reasons his team ended up in this spot.
Now the Nationals will likely need him to help them go just a little bit further.