WASHINGTON -- A small victory arrived Sunday night for the Nationals’ beleaguered bullpen: it did not finish the regular season last in ERA.
Such an indignity belonged to the Baltimore Orioles' relief bunch, a group playing for a 108-loss team. They are last in bullpen ERA in 2019 forever. Washington is 29th. Strike up the band.
The Nationals enter Tuesday’s Wild-Card Game as a well-balanced team. The offense was top five, the defense vastly improved, the baserunning aggressive, the starting pitching second-best in the league. The bullpen remains the outlier, posing as a gut-wrenching question just prior to it entering the portion of the schedule where it becomes more important than ever.
“I'll be quite honest with you,” Davey Martinez said. “The bullpen struggled. But they were my guys. I mean, they're guys that I put them in, I trusted them to do things that they probably weren't ready to do. But they did it. They’re a big reason why we're here, too. Even though they struggled, we're here because those guys never gave up. And they kept going out there, regardless of how it worked out for them. There were days they were really good. There were days that they weren’t. But they’re a big part of our club and I expect them to go out there and get outs for us.”
Martinez is likely to try to avoid them on the whole Tuesday. Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Aníbal Sánchez will be available in the bullpen. The team’s only top-flight relievers, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, will also be available. Members of the torturous mid-section of the bullpen will be on the roster. But where do they fit?
“Sometimes the most important part of your bullpen is the middle guys,” Doolittle said. “They don’t get a lot of publicity. It’s not sexy what they do, but if you’re going to have a good bullpen, those bridge guys are so important.”
Doolittle wondered about scenarios Monday. Is a spot for one to enter to finish an inning with two outs in order to give a starter-turned-reliever a clean inning? Say, to close the sixth with runners on base? Are they there in case of emergency? Is there a specific batter the team’s advanced analytics says should face one of those specific pitchers?
And, in the grander view, are there enough relievers to go around in Major League Baseball?
Four teams finished the season with bullpen ERAs above five. A year ago, only two did so. The year before one did.
“I think this year, the last couple years, relievers are having to cover more innings just in general,” Doolittle said. “Bullpens are becoming as specialized as they are, managers want to go to their toys at the back end of the game because, theoretically, those are automatic zeroes. You want to get to those guys and sometimes that means you’re putting them in the seventh inning and somehow combine to go get the last six outs of the game.
“But, what that also does is it prevents you -- general you -- prevents you from developing the other four, five six seven guys in your bullpen. You’re just relying really heavily on two or three guys. I think if you look at what we did this final homestand as a group as a bullpen, we did an awesome job of sharing the load. I think this was one of our best homestands of the season as a group, so it really came at the right time here heading into the playoffs.”
Bullpens have long been homes to chaos. Small samples can destroy a season’s worth of statistics. Relievers rarely stick with one team for more than two years. Some make it one -- or less. Of the relievers on the Nationals' 2019 Opening Day roster, only two -- Doolittle and Wander Suero -- are likely to be on the 25-man Wild-Card Game roster.
Tuesday’s game is a dichotomy of the situation. Washington sends out $210 million pitcher Max Scherzer to start the game. It hopes for seven innings from him. Milwaukee will start Brandon Woodruff. He has made two September “starts” since returning from the injured list after his oblique strain healed. He’s pitched two innings in each of those appearances. Milwaukee hopes he can pitch up to three innings against Washington.
“It works when you have starters like Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, and Sánchez,” Rizzo said of the Nationals’ starter-heavy approach. “That’s the key to our formula here. It’s won us a lot of games over the last eight years.”
The challenge to that approach arrives in the playoffs. If a starter falters, the bullpen -- this bullpen -- needs to take over. Even if the Nationals navigate nine innings Tuesday with limited bullpen use, they will need to reach into the soft middle to pull-outs during the division series.
Everything else appears contender-caliber. But is it enough to overcome their most glaring weakness? The question lingered all season. Now, it hangs over the postseason.
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