Thanks to the bizarre, and probably unfair, dynamics of baseball’s five-game division series — with those five games spread generously over seven days — it is possible for a team with three fab starting pitchers who are game for the heist to come alongside and, “arrrrr,” board a mightier ship.
Right now, the Dodgers, their series tied at a game apiece after the Nationals’ 4-2 victory in Friday night’s Game 2, are wondering where Washington got these scary skull-and-crossbones relievers. Avast, there Nationals, you’ve already used Stephen Strasburg (Tuesday) and Max Scherzer (Friday) in relief — as keys to two vital victories. Who’ll be swinging down from the rigging next?
Well, if Aníbal Sánchez starts Game 3 on Sunday at Nationals Park, as Manager Dave Martinez intimated late Friday night, and the Nats have a lead in the middle innings, then you better expect $140 million lefty Patrick Corbin will be swinging aboard that pretty Dodger Blue vessel. Someone get Corbin an eye patch and a dagger to put between his teeth.
General Manager Mike Rizzo put out the word almost a month ago that if the Nats could get to October, they suddenly would have three fabulous new power arms in their much-mocked bullpen, each man now with more than 230 strikeouts. And in crucial maximum-leverage spots, Strasburg, Scherzer and Corbin — combined contracts of $525 million — were “all on board” with the idea of being relievers between their normal starts.
Yeah, right; we’ll believe it when we see it. No one’s ever actually done that — not on such a scale with three stars all volunteering to clean the Augean stables.
The plan became fully real, not just hypothetical, before Game 2, when Scherzer said he could pitch an inning. What an inning it turned out to be. With the Nats clinging to a 4-2 lead, Scherzer provided the strikeout-the-side bridge from Sean Doolittle in the seventh inning to closer Daniel Hudson.
“I told them: ‘Hey, look, I played catch today. I’m good,’ ” Scherzer said. “I’ve been in these situations before where you’re pitching on two days’ rest in All-Star Games and different times in the postseason. I know that on two days’ rest you’ve got one inning in you. So I said, ‘Whatever the situation is, I’m ready to pitch.’ ”
Max, when could you pitch again? That’s when Scherzer may have spoken for all of the Nats’ Big Three — at least for this series. You can’t do this for a month. But for the Nats, the Dodgers are the one huge hurdle to reaching a World Series. Against St. Louis or Atlanta, they would face an even battle. This is the one they have to belay by piracy.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter. For me, you bring it whenever you’re told to bring it,” Scherzer said. “This is the playoffs. You lay it on the line every time you touch that field. Whenever I get the ball next, I get the ball.”
Rizzo first saw a limited version of this plan in operation when he was in the front office of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. They had two superstar starters, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. And they had a closer, Byung-Hyun Kim, who trashed two potential World Series wins in Yankee Stadium by allowing home runs. How did the Diamondbacks win their title? By starting Schilling in Games 1, 4 and 7 — the latter two on short rest — and using Johnson, who had won Game 6, to close Game 7 on no days’ rest and snuff the Yankees.
There’s every kind of swashbuckle flair to this Nats plan. The Dodgers are playing a long game. They desperately want to win their first World Series since 1988 and are bitterly stung by losing the past two. They make their pitching plans for the whole month because, seriously, who’s going to beat them after their 106 regular season wins? No need for unorthodox scalawag behavior. Keep everyone fresh and healthy.
But the Nats, who never have gotten past the first round of the playoffs, have decided to give no quarter and throw their best at the Dodgers day after day, and if they somehow reach the NL Championship Series, they’ll figure it out when the time comes. If they can clear their heads after more dancing and grog-spraying.
Is this honorable, may-the-best-man-win behavior? Indeed it’s not — and bravo.
For the curious, on Sunday and Monday the Nats will be trying to blow down the Dodgers on South Capitol Street. In Game 4, expect to see Scherzer, who threw 77 pitches in his wild-card start Tuesday, come back after just two days’ rest following his blow-the-men-down relief performance in Game 2.
If all this leaves the Dodgers stunned and worried — and it surely did, with their analytics in a shredded heap for a day, with their home-field advantage now gone — then all the better. No one in L.A. can figure out what the Nats’ master plan is, or if they even have one. But the Dodgers do know that Strasburg — who pitched three scoreless innings of relief Tuesday, then dominated the Dodgers with 10 strikeouts in six innings for the Game 2 win Friday — surely will be lined up on full rest for a potential Game 5.
Strasburg has a career postseason ERA of 0.64 with just one run allowed and 14 strikeouts in nine innings so far this October, so everyone in baseball knows what that means for the Dodgers: Don’t let the Nats get to Game 5! Strasburg is approaching the October mystique of names such as Bob Gibson, Orel Hershiser, Jack Morris and Madison Bumgarner.
One man seemed to grasp the nefarious nature of the Nats’ pranks here in Game 2: Los Angeles Manager Dave Roberts. Asked whether the Dodgers were surprised to see Scherzer run in from the bullpen, he said, “Yes.”
“What is the most extreme usage you’ve ever seen of starting pitchers in relief roles in a playoff series?” he was asked.
Roberts didn’t have to think long. “Last year in the World Series,” he said.
That would be the five-game series that the Boston Red Sox won by using David Price twice as a starter and once as a closer, Chris Sale once as a starter and once in relief, and Eduardo Rodriguez twice in relief and once as a starter.
If the Nats are trying to remind the Dodgers of a very recent, very bad experience, they’re doing the job.
The Nats, with all their shenanigans, are still underdogs in this series. But don’t tell them that. They’re all aboard for massive mischief.
For two fun and probably crazy days in Nationals Park, when you see action in the Nats’ bullpen, just think, “Fire in the hole!” You never know who may be coming out. But if it’s one of the Nats’ Big Three, he might just be humming, “Blow, blow, blow the man down.”
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