The Nationals’ season has come skittering to the edge for the third time in eight days. Not that it’s apparent.
Their mood following the season-extending Game 4 on Monday in Nationals Park remained filled with pep. A miniature disco ball spread colored circles across the clubhouse ceiling. Gerardo Parra blew on his whistle. Davey Martinez clarified for one of the younger players he shouldn’t just be packing for Los Angeles, but also beyond, sending him back to his locker instead of into the lukewarm evening.
Washington is in Los Angeles for Game 5 on Wednesday night with hope and expectation. Pressure is more likely to sit in the other dugout, where the back-to-back National League champions reside. Los Angeles is worried about one thing after losing the past two World Series and not winning one since 1988: taking the title. It’s the only outcome which will do following a 106-win season and seventh consecutive division title.
For the Nationals? They’re here. Barely. Washington has spent the season emerging from ghastly situations, first in May, then whenever the bullpen was used, in the eighth inning of the Wild-Card Game and again in the now-even National League Division Series. Stephen Strasburg -- its greatest weapon against opponents and the troubling in-house bullpen -- is on the mound.
“I think it's something that you train for, you dream about as a kid, and you want to have those opportunities to just see how your stuff stacks up,” Strasburg said of the chance. “When you're in the moment and stuff it's a great feeling, just going out there and competing against the best.”
The Nationals’ preferred formula for the evening is simplistic: Strasburg for seven innings, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson for the rest. A repeat of Game 4’s pitching would be ideal. They want to distribute 27 outs among three pitchers, even with Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez available in the bullpen. Max Scherzer will not be an option during this visit to Los Angeles.
Strasburg’s postseason ERA is down to 0.64 after 28 innings. He controlled the Dodgers in Game 2 with his curveball, leaving L.A. manager Dave Roberts admittedly surprised postgame by its high usage. Strasburg jumped from 31 percent of his pitches as curveballs in the regular season to 40 percent against Los Angeles, making Roberts’ postgame head-scratching the real surprise of the evening. Strasburg has relied on his curveball throughout the year. How such a well-run opponent was caught off-guard by it remains a mystery.
“For me I think it just comes down to execution,” Strasburg said. “I try and focus on the things I can control and good pitching is supposed to get good hitting out most of the time. They always say a guy that gets a hit three out of 10 times is in the Hall of Fame, so I'm trying to get him out those seven other times.”
How he tries to do it Wednesday night will be among the evening’s most compelling storylines. At times in the regular season, starting pitchers face the same opponent in less than a week, complicating strategy. Do they change? Stay the same? Do the hitters swing early after a bad outcome or dare the pitcher to do it all again? Could, as Strasburg suggested, throwing quality pitches simply be enough, even if the approach is a re-run?
“I don't know the exact numbers, but I think he was even more 50 percent, over 50 percent secondaries against us that first time,” Roberts said. “And is he going to continue to do that? Are we going to make an adjustment? I just do believe that the changeup and then the curveball usage, he was very sharp with both those pitches. When he's making pitches like that with that on top of the fastball, he's going to be tough on anybody, so I think for us to kind of hunt a location and be ready to capitalize on mistakes is very important.”
Scherzer watched Strasburg confound the Dodgers in Game 2 before his relief appearance. Swings at off-speed pitches in the other batter’s box. Swings which buckled knees which emphatically missed the baseball. The Dodgers produced 20 swinging strikes and 15 called strikes against Strasburg in just six innings last time. His combination of crispness and confusion -- about what was coming before it was released and identifying it once in flight -- resulted in one earned run in six innings.
“It’s the chess game,” Scherzer said. “When you’re sequencing pitches together the way Stras was [Friday], and you execute pitches the way you can, you can always be ahead of the hitter because of what you can do with the baseball if you can locate.”
Strasburg pitched six innings that night on short rest. He is fully rested for Wednesday’s mound visit, arriving under the same protocol Scherzer did Monday night in Washington. His job is to pitch seven innings, whatever it takes, keeping the Nationals’ bullpen in its seats. Strasburg said Friday pressure is something he’s learned is under his control. That same day, so were the Dodgers. Again combining those outcomes could finally push the Nationals into the National League Championship Series.
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