“All the way to the wild-card game,” Martinez said.
In case you wonder how confident the Nationals are after posting baseball’s best record since May 24 (36-15 after sweeping Wednesday’s doubleheader against the Rockies) with the second-best run differential in that span (plus-90), now you know. They’re setting up their postseason rotation.
Would Scherzer start such a wild-card game?
“Yes, he would,” Martinez said. “Let’s assume he is [starting]. But I hope we’re not the wild-card team.”
The Nats also realized that by pitching Mad Max on Thursday, not Friday, they would line him up to face the Braves in all three of the teams’ remaining series, including one next week at Nationals Park. If the defending National League East champs in Atlanta want to know the intentions of the team that finished Wednesday night four games behind them but three in the loss column, then it’s clear. The Nats think they are about ready to move into the passing lane with their blinker on.
All of this is well and good. But there is one huge problem: the bullpen. For two months the Nats have shown all the reasons they absolutely must acquire a quality reliever by the July 31 trade deadline.
Closer Sean Doolittle was asked to save two games in one day Wednesday. He pulled it off in 3-2 and 2-0 wins over Colorado. But the 32-year-old lefty has never been asked to carry such a workload. If he goes down, draw the shades. If such a Double-Duty Doolittle Day doesn’t underline the problem, what could? And just before the Nats hope he will need to do plenty of work in six games against the NL-best Dodgers and Braves starting Friday.
Current setup man Fernando Rodney, 42, the oldest player in the majors by three years, is pitching his big heart out, including a pair of holds in the doubleheader. With his eighth team in five years, Rodney is found money for now. But for three more months?
Also, Martinez’s big weakness remains his handling of the bullpen in the late innings. On their recent 5-4 road trip, the Nats lost one game each in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Atlanta, when different managing — or one more relief arm, so scant managerial thinking was required — might have meant spectacular success.
Can the Nats add that key reliever within a week? Based on a half-year of bullpen bungling going back to the offseason, the odds are, at best, pick-’em.
Just for context, so you can chew your fingernails even more, the Nats’ offseason project of building a Big Three starting rotation, backed by a solid veteran fourth starter, has been a spectacular success. Until a loss Sunday by Joe Ross, the Nats had gone 27 consecutive games without a starting pitcher taking a loss, tying the major league record set by the 1916 New York Giants.
“Pretty impressive,” understated Nats starter Stephen Strasburg said after winning his NL-leading 13th game Tuesday night.
Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin entered Wednesday ranked first, third and sixth in the NL in strikeouts, respectively. No other team has a group of starters approaching that. All three are also in the top 25 in baseball in ERA. Only the Dodgers and Astros can match that. Also, fourth starter Aníbal Sánchez, since returning from the injured list in late May, has a 2.75 ERA in nine games and looks exactly like the guy with the 2.83 ERA in Atlanta last year.
This is the formula for October success. If your schedule breaks right, your Big Three can, if necessary, start all five games in a division series and, maybe, six of seven games in a league championship series or World Series. Your lack of a quality fifth starter means nothing.
Balanced against this — and explaining why the Nats are just 55-46 — is a gigantic mural of abject owner-plus-GM bullpen-building failure.
The symbol of this frustration remains Trevor Rosenthal, who you will be glad to know has a 0.00 ERA in four games with his new team, the Detroit Tigers, where his control has been adequate and his fastball touches 101 mph. Because the Nats, who released him in June, already are paying his $7 million salary, perhaps he could be the deadline-deal fix. Okay, just kidding. (Good for Trevor.)
The Nats also could investigate their former relievers Felipe Vásquez (1.91 ERA entering Wednesday), Brandon Kintzler (2.16), Yusmeiro Petit (2.59), Shawn Kelley (3.00), Tyler Clippard (3.31), Craig Stammen (3.68), Trevor Gott (3.86) and Blake Treinen (4.46) — all useful-to-excellent relievers scattered across the continental United States.
No, they’re not coming back either.
You know who else isn’t arriving by the July 31 trade deadline? Craig Kimbrel. In his past eight games for the Cubs, including Wednesday afternoon’s, Kimbrel’s ERA is 0.00 with 11 strikeouts in eight innings. He has, however, shown a flaw: He has given up three singles. In other words, he resembles Craig Kimbrel, the man with the lowest ERA in the past century.
The Cubs signed him in June for $43 million for three years with a team option for a fourth year. Despite helpful high-volume hints (from me) that the Nats would be crazy not to go to $50 million to $55 million to get Kimbrel, the Nats had no contact with him after spring training. No contact, even though the Nats have allowed a diabolical 80 runs in the eighth inning in 101 games this season.
In the next week, here are the relievers on teams that look like “sellers” who will be logical trade targets: Kirby Yates, Vásquez, Brad Hand, Will Smith, Edwin Díaz, Alex Colomé, Ken Giles, Shane Greene, Ian Kennedy, Sergio Romo, Jake Diekman, Mychal Givens and my second-tier favorite, the San Francisco Giants’ Sam Dyson.
The nervous Nats clearly don’t intend to go after anyone who is expensive, either in dollars or prospects, so that probably leaves out the first seven names.
Recent public comments by General Manager Mike Rizzo about the Nats not wanting to go over the $206 million luxury tax payroll this season, plus reporting by Washington Post beat writer Jesse Dougherty, indicate the Nats probably will go after one of three relievers who will earn less than $2 million the rest of this season: Greene, Dyson or Diekman.
Greene is fool’s gold. The Tigers would love to swindle the Nats out of top prospect Carter Kieboom for him because his 1.22 ERA is flashy. But Greene, a career mediocrity (4.54 ERA), is just having a lucky year as his 3.74 FIP tips off. The lefty Diekman is no better than what the Nats already have.
Dyson, 31, part of San Francisco’s six-deep bullpen, is the only worthy target from this trio with his 2.57 and 2.69 ERAs the past two years since arm surgery. Dyson would be controllable through 2020 and cost just $1.9 million for the rest of this year.
Who could the Nats offer in trade? The red-hot Giants, now 52-51, don’t know yet whether they will be buyers or sellers at the deadline — or, probably, some of both. Facing rotation problems, they could do both at once by dealing for one of the Nats’ three candidates for fifth starter: Joe Ross, Austin Voth or Erick Fedde, all of whom have looked useful recently. Nats fans think their team is short of starters, but compared with many wild-card contenders, they have a tiny excess.
The Nats, now that they are healthy and have developed a giddy team chemistry under the cheerful Martinez, should recognize how big an opportunity they have in front of them. They should be thinking about breaking the Dodgers’ hearts in an October series the same way Los Angeles, as an underdog, broke theirs in 2016.
In short, the Nats should aim higher than they have. At least 10 relievers are on the market right now who would energize the Nats’ clubhouse like an electric jolt and dramatically improve their chances to be more than a quick-exit playoff team.
For two months, the Nats have done their part. On Wednesday, Rodney and Doolittle did twice their parts. Now they all need help from their bosses. One more reliever. A good one. Get it done. And no more excuses.