The Nationals’ bullpen will make or break the World Series

The 2019 Fall Classic begins Tuesday night in Houston, with the top two pitching rotations in baseball being pitted against each other.

The Astros top-two pitchers are both Cy Young candidates, with Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander taking the hill in games one and two, respectively. Similarly, Max Scherzer, a perennial Cy Young candidate himself, toes the rubber for game one, with flamethrowing Stephen Strasburg behind him. Even game three will have a strong starting pitching matchup, with Zack Grienke likely to get the start against Patrick Corbin.

The Washington bullpen has been the Achilles Heel for Dave Martinez’ squad since the start of the season. Though he pushed all the right buttons in the short series to make it to the World Series, the inconsistent and not-all-too-talented of the Nationals will be the key to their championship chances.

The Nationals have relied on starters to go deeper into games than their peers all season long. In total, Washington threw the least amount of bullpen innings in 2019, totaling 500 ⅔ innings.

The reason is twofold, one, they have one of the best starting rotations in baseball, and two, they simply did not have the talent to be able to absorb more innings in relief, and still win 90+ games. To put into context the struggles this 93-win team had, consider the following: the Nats’ bullpen finished the season ranked second to last in both bullpen ERA (5.68) and blown saves (29), as well as bottom-five in FIP (4.94) and xFIP (5.03).

Though the full and final 25-man rosters have not been announced yet, we can look to the Nats’ previous series rosters to identify some relievers who likely will make appearances at some point during the World Series. Though Washington has heavily relied on their starting pitchers so far this postseason, there’s just no conceivable way they can get through the series on starting innings alone.

The wild card game was a wild won, though it was Max Scherzer who gave up the most runs, and it was Josh Hader of all people, who blew the lead and let the game go the Nats’ way. In this win-or-go-home game however, Dave Martinez took no chances, and brought in Stephen Strasburg for three solid innings. Hardly a vote of confidence for the bullpen.

In the divisional series against the Dodgers, Washington did a pretty decent job of hiding their troubled bullpen, utilizing Max Scherzer (effectively) and Patrick Corbin (ineffectively) to cement late-inning leads. When relievers did appear in games however, it did not go well.

Washington’s six ‘true relievers’ totaled 12 innings and allowed eight runs on 14 hits and seven walks, with not a perfect outing among any of the appearances. This does not include the disastrous game three relief outing by Patrick Corbin, who got two outs while allowing six earned runs.

Only Daniel Hudson and Fernando Rodney threw scoreless innings, while Hunter Strickland, Tanner Rainey, and Wander Suero looked terrible (Suero made one appearance, let on three baserunners and retired only one batter).

Things stabilized a bit in the LCS, in large part because the Cardinals’ bats were completely shut down after their blowout of the Braves in their LDS clincher. All in all, Washington’s four starting pitchers accounted for 27 of the total 36 innings in the series.

The Cards scored two runs in the first three games combined, and then fell behind 7-0 in the first inning of game four. Still, it was a much-improved performance for the Nationals’ bullpen, which managed 9 ⅓ innings and allowed only one run.

Sean Doolittle came into game one of the NLCS in the eighth inning, and delivered a clean four-out save. His game two performance was less inspiring, and in just one inning he allowed two hits and one run. Patrick Corbin got the first out of the ninth, with Daniel Hudson recording the last two outs without incident.

In game three, Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey each pitched a perfect eighth and ninth inning, respectively, to cap a Stephen Strasburg gem, and in a game four blowout, the bullpen was nearly perfect, as Rainey, Doolittle, and Hudson combined for four shutout innings in which they only allowed two baserunners.

The LCS showed that the bullpen is capable of shutting down a good offense, though this was an extremely small sample size. Dave Martinez’ line of defense is likely Hudson, Doolittle, and Rainey, who likely represents the most risk. While Hudson and Doolittle have decent history behind them, it’s the rookie Rainey who may be the key to Washington’s success. The question will be can the 26-year-old who totaled 48 13 regular season innings and allowed 32 hits and 38 walks control the zone and get Houston hitters out?

While starting pitching is much the ballyhoo entering this World Series (and something I am personally really looking forward to watching), the Nats fate may lie in their relievers’ ability to shut the door on any potential late-inning comebacks. It is unlikely that the starters can shoulder that many innings in this series, and even if they can, the Astros could make them pay if they see a starter four times in one game. If the ALCS taught us anything, it’s that the Astros lineup does not quit —– it is a relentless mix of power hitters and patient on-base guys.

While Washington has to like their chances with Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, and even Anibal Sanchez, it will be their bullpen that needs to shut down a potent Houston offense to earn them four wins in seven games.

Though playoff games seem to go later and later into the evening, with this type of DC bullpen, it’s worth losing some sleep to see if they can get the job done late in games, after all, who wants to miss the chance of a Fernando Rodney World Series experience.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano

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