Would what is now reality have been outlandish before the series began? Back-to-back no-hitter attempts, late runs, only the top pitchers being used, a 2-0 lead after consecutive road wins, an 86 percent chance to reach the World Series. That’s reality. Pre-series, it was improbable.
“Oh, my gosh,” Sean Doolittle said. “I don't even think -- it almost -- it almost -- I don't want to say it was like unrealistic, but that would have felt like maybe too much to ask even for like a best-case scenario. You have your two starters take no-hitters past the seventh inning, and we get some timely hitting and come out of there with both games, I mean, that is absolutely -- we literally couldn't have scripted it any better.”
The glowing start receives another boost Monday night. Stephen Strasburg will pitch Game 3 when Washington hosts the NLCS for the first time. The last time Washington played a game this late in the season? Back in 1933. Franklin D. Roosevelt threw out the first pitch from his seat at Griffith Stadium, replete with crisp hat and double-breasted coat.
Strasburg’s presence further represents the main theme for the Nationals: Starting pitching was the lone constant through the regular season. It is the top reason they are here now, and is the undisputed reason why they have a hearty grip on this series. The process runs counter to baseball’s strategical tide. It’s perfectly in line with what Mike Rizzo covets -- and spends on -- the most.
Strasburg has a 2.40 postseason ERA. Max Scherzer has a 1.80 ERA. Aníbal Sánchez has a 0.71 ERA. Patrick Corbin’s ERA was foiled by his NLDS Game 3 relief appearance. It’s 7.56. Outside of that, his ERA is 1.17.
Washington dumped its money into those four players. More than half-a-billion dollars over the life of their contracts. Two results occurred: the bullpen went through the season with the reliability of a $1,000 car; the postseason has become anchored by the starters. Of the 216 outs recorded by Washington in the postseason, 158 have been recorded by those four pitchers. That’s 73 percent. Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson contributed 31 of the remaining 58.
It’s not just the Nationals. St. Louis and Houston are riding the same model. Astros starters Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are Nos. 2 and 3, respectively in postseason innings pitched. St. Louis has three starters -- Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas -- in the top nine. Washington will be 1-2 if Strasburg can pitch five innings or more Monday night. Scherzer currently leads everyone with 20 innings pitched.
“I think it was just the guys that are doing it,” Scherzer told reporters earlier in the series. “Next year it will be the bullpens. Year after that it will be starters. It's just kind of, there's so many ways to win baseball games through pitching. And we have seen it over the years, of how teams have deployed pitching staffs in the postseasons. There's no one way to do it.
“And so it's really about what you got that day. I really kind of see it that way, is whatever your team, whatever your pitching staff has, whatever the starter has. There's times where starters are going, like in the NLDS and the ALDS, there's times where guys are pitching on where, like for me I relieved in Game 2 and going into Game 4 that was the weirdest thing for me to ever do, to be pitching like that and knowing how to pitch.
“So you just kind of got to throw everything out the window and just realize, just go a hundred percent, give it whatever you got, and everybody's on the same program.”
Corbin is adapting to this mentality. The worst outing of his career came in his first postseason relief appearance. He later put together a crucial 1 ⅓ innings appearance in Game 5 of the NLDS, providing a path to Doolittle and Hudson. Davey Martinez used him as a strict matchup option in Game 2 of the NLCS when he brought Corbin in to face Kolten Wong in the ninth inning. He threw two pitches then was replaced after the infielders gave him flak for the length of his outing, Corbin turning into a $140 million LOOGY (Left-handed one out guy).
“During Game 5, he really got a taste of bullpen life,” Doolittle said. “He had warmed up, I think, three times before he went into the game, but then he went in the game, and he was absolutely lights out. His stuff was electric.
“I was joking with him, once we found out he was going to be in the bullpen for Game 2, that he was an adrenaline junkie, and now he can't get enough of it.”
Corbin is out of the bullpen this week and back to his day job. He will start Game 4, which could be a chance to send the Nationals to the World Series. If they make it, their formula will have been simplistic and stunningly effective: pay the starting pitchers, deploy the starting pitchers, advance.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS:
- Tossing a legacy: Scherzer is rewriting his postseason story
- Anotha' one: Scherzer, Sánchez repeat history
- Mighty clutch: Eaton has big eighth inning in Game 2