The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals’ bullpen moves in Game 3 were a disaster. That doesn’t mean they were wrong.

Kike Hernández hit a two-run double off Patrick Corbin, one of three run-scoring extra-base hits for the Dodgers in the pivotal sixth inning. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Don’t second-guess these decisions, because it wouldn’t be fair, and don’t put it on Patrick Corbin, because he was just doing what his club asked him to do. The Washington Nationals do not have more than two relievers worthy of taking the mound in a one- or two-run playoff game. If you think otherwise, remember the crick that remains in your neck from watching the delicious meatballs Hunter Strickland has been serving up for weeks. He is now a symbol of this battered bullpen and is slipping into “He Who Must Not Be Named” territory.

The third game of this National League Division Series — which goes down as a 10-4 victory for the Los Angeles Dodgers — was set up as the Nationals wanted it Sunday night. They got five stunning innings from starter Aníbal Sánchez. They got a two-run bomb in the first from Juan Soto. They had both a lead and a juiced Nationals Park behind them. They had two left-handed Dodgers coming up to start the sixth.

It was the time to turn to Corbin, the lefty who threw the first pitch of the series for the Nats. It was the right move — and because Manager Dave Martinez made it, Washington has a much tougher path toward winning this series.

Boswell: After Game 3 haymaker, the Nationals need more punch to stay in the fight

Corbin’s line: two outs, six runs, loss.

Good call. Terrible ramifications. Both can be true.

“The plan was good,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “The result wasn’t.”

Remember that Washington got to the division series and arrived at Game 3 tied with the 106-win Dodgers because it had covered its house-afire bullpen with stud starters Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer coming on in relief. Let’s not re-engineer this in hindsight. That’s the Nats’ path. It’s overgrown and rocky, but all they can do is put on their hiking boots, get out their weed whacker and try to forge ahead.

Martinez’s decision Sunday night wasn’t whether to use Corbin. It was when. In some ways, Sánchez made that difficult on his skipper. After a shaky, leave-the-bases-loaded first inning, Sánchez did precisely what he was asked. He cruised through five innings. After the first, he made just one real mistake — an 0-2 fastball that Max Muncy drove out of the yard in the fifth.

But in the bottom of the fifth, with one out and a man on first in a game his team led 2-1, Martinez had to decide: pinch-hit Ryan Zimmerman for Sánchez and try to extend the lead, thus turning to Corbin, or send up Sánchez to bunt, then back out to the mound after 87 pitches to face those two Dodgers lefties, MVP candidate Cody Bellinger and shortstop Corey Seager.

Before you spend all day screaming to your office mates, “He should have stuck with Sánchez!” consider that the ­­­35-year-old was already trying to navigate the Dodgers’ lineup for a third time. Opposing hitters’ on-base-plus-slugging percentage against Sánchez the first time through the lineup: .587. Their OPS the second time through: .702. Their OPS the third time through: .923. Had Sánchez remained in and coughed it up, those screams to your office mates could have been, “How could he stick with Sánchez?”

“I think it’s time to do something,” Sánchez said, “to make a move.”

“I trust Pat,” Martinez said. “He’s been unbelievable all year. And I would do it again. I really would.”

So it was Corbin’s turn to impersonate some combination of Strasburg from the wild-card game against Milwaukee (three scoreless innings) and Scherzer from Game 2 in L.A. (striking out the side in the eighth inning of a two-run game). What we learned from Corbin’s appearance: What Strasburg and Scherzer did over the past week was extraordinary.

This wasn’t a matter of Corbin, who threw 107 pitches over six innings in Game 1 three days earlier, simply not having it. His line is impossibly ugly. His experience was that he was a pitch away from extracting himself — a million times.

He got two strikes on Bellinger — who singled. He struck out the next two men. He induced a groundball from David Freese — that bounced through the hole on the right side of the infield. He put Russell Martin in an 0-2 hole, threw two balls — then allowed a go-ahead double to the gap in left-center. After a walk, he put Enrique Hernández in yet another 0-2 hole, missed with his next pitch — then gave up his second two-run double.

Finish Bellinger, he had a ­1-2-3 inning, and the Nats’ strategy would have been putting pressure on the Dodgers. Finish Martin, and the lead is preserved. Finish Hernández, and it’s still a one-run game.

“It just stinks,” Corbin said. “I feel like I let these guys down.”

The Dodgers believed the Nationals would turn to Patrick Corbin in relief, and adjusted

How unlikely was this outcome? During the regular season, Corbin put 182 hitters in 0-2 holes. Three managed doubles. Three managed homers. Their collective production: an .094 average, a .164 slugging percentage and 109 strikeouts. He is a good pitcher with the stuff — particularly a wipeout slider — to finish hitters off.

Normally. The playoffs, in relief, were not normal.

Shoot, even Wander Suero got ahead of Justin Turner 0-2. So, naturally, Turner took three straight balls, then deposited the pitch that turned the ballgame into a blowout into the Dodgers’ bullpen. It was 8-2.

The shame of it for the Nats is that Voldemort — sorry, sorry, Strickland — and Suero and Tanner Rainey and Fernando Rodney could have provided an 8-2 deficit without much effort, and at least the Nats would have had Corbin in the tank — either in relief of Scherzer on Monday or backing up Strasburg in Game 5. Now, the path forward is considerably murkier.

It starts with Scherzer — and could include Strasburg. “All hands on deck,” Martinez said. But this is uncharted territory. Scherzer doesn’t know what sort of impact those 13 mesmerizing pitches will have on his abilities, his stamina, his effectiveness Monday night. Could he go 80 pitches? Ninety? One hundred?

“I don’t even know what the number is right now,” Scherzer said. “That’s kind of out the door.”

What’s also out the door: the idea that the Nats’ creative use of their best weapons could send the Dodgers back to L.A. not for a fifth game, but for the winter. What they need now is for Scherzer to somehow pitch like he hasn’t recently, to go deep into the game. Then Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson would somehow have to finish it off.

Bowell:The Nationals are breaking the rules

Because if that happens, the Nats would have Strasburg on full rest in Game 5 on Wednesday in Los Angeles. With, perhaps, Corbin behind him — as long as Sunday didn’t scare them off. They now have information about Corbin on short rest and as a reliever. That the information is ugly can’t change the thought process.

Blame all the relievers who failed here this season — Tony Sipp and Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough and Dan Jennings, we could go on and on — for putting the Nats in this position. Don’t blame Dave Martinez for following the only script that has a chance to provide the Nats a happy ending — even though it didn’t work out, and the job got harder because of it.

Read more on the Washington Nationals:

Stephen Strasburg is the best pitcher in the Nationals-Dodgers series. Get him the ball.

Inside the Nationals’ gutsy Game 2 pitching plan that evened the NLDS

How the Nationals have limited Cody Bellinger, likely NL MVP, in the NLDS

Juan Soto is a very quick learner. Just listen to his English.

Anthony Rendon is relaxed and candid ahead of potentially his final run with the Nats