WASHINGTON -- The Nationals flew home from Los Angeles with pieces of a plan already in place. They slipped Max Scherzer into a bullpen appearance to help squeeze through a Game 2 win. The victory delivered a split and enabled a Sunday dice roll.
Davey Martinez decided Friday night Aníbal Sánchez would pitch Sunday, Scherzer on Monday, and Patrick Corbin would be available out of the bullpen. The idea was bold. Winning Game 2 in Los Angeles allowed it to be enacted. Setting up the pitching with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in a place to start on regular -- or beyond -- rest provided extra hope. If Sánchez could hang in on Sunday, Corbin could follow and Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson would loom with the Nationals' two marquee pitchers still in their pocket.
Martinez’s idea made it all the way to Corbin before it careened and crashed in blazing fashion, pinning the Nationals a step away from elimination following a 10-4 loss on Sunday night. Game 4 begins at 6:40 p.m. Monday. Washington has to win to force a flight back to Los Angeles on Tuesday and the finality of a Game 5 on Wednesday.
Martinez touted Sánchez as part of the “Big Four” before the game, delivering hyperbole and hope. A more level view of Sánchez would deem him one of the game’s better fourth starters, so adept in that role pushing him to Sunday’s start caused only mild consternation.
Martinez was rewarded for the decision when Sánchez left the game after five innings. He outpitched Los Angeles starter and National League ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu. Sánchez allowed a run, struck out nine, walked two and helped the Nationals steal five innings in the heart of the series.
He was ahead because of Juan Soto’s first career postseason home run. Soto hit a 1-1 fastball from Ryu into dead center field, narrowly avoiding a fresh first-inning dent on the red metal cap of the bullpen cart. Lefties slugged a minuscule .327 this season against Ryu. Soto handled him after taking a changeup away and unloading on a fastball up.
Sánchez’s departure four innings later set up the Nationals’ ongoing starter-reliever carousel. Corbin, unlikely to start again this series, began warming at 9:12 p.m., while the fifth inning was going on. He ostensibly is a reliever for the rest of the series. His first appearance did not go well.
Struggling Cody Bellinger singled to start the inning. But, Corbin came right back with back-to-back strikeouts of Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock. So, two outs, a runner on and 36-year-old David Freese -- comfortable in the postseason -- to the plate.
Brian Dozier shifted up the middle when Freese settled in, sent there by a 2019 spray chart which showed Frees often hit ground balls to the left of second base. Corbin fell behind, 2-0. Freese hit his next pitch toward the right side, precisely where Dozier would have made a simplistic play if he weren’t so far up the middle. The ball teasingly rolled into right field instead, prompting ill-ridden flashbacks to 2017, when Scherzer picked up two outs and a seemingly harmless ground ball to start a mid-game relief appearance. That day, in the fifth inning of a fateful Game 5, Wilson Contreras’ roller was to the left of a swung-around Trea Turner. Turner stopped it but had no chance to throw out Contreras. The inning came apart, the Nationals eventually lost the deciding game and Scherzer’s postseason résumé took another ding.
A cascade of nastiness followed for Corbin the way it did Scherzer. Four hits, two walks and, once Wander Suero relieved him then immediately allowed a three-run homer to his first batter, Justin Turner, six earned runs. A perpetual long face followed in the dugout after his removal.
The rest of the night was just protocol. Baseball is mandated to play nine innings, so the evening went on, its pleasant 70-degree setting undermined by the brutishness of Los Angeles' seven-run sixth inning. Fernando Rodney survived a lump-filled outing. Tanner Rainey was next. Hunter Strickland followed. He allowed a two-run homer while trudging through the ninth.
Washington had reached the midway point of the series when Sánchez left the mound in the fifth. Corbin was ready, its latest dispatch in order to avoid the gurgling underbelly which remains the middle of the bullpen, even when occupied by a $140 million pitcher. The plan to avoid its roster hole backfired. Only nine innings more remain assured.
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