The Nationals could bench Bryce Harper for tonight’s game

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The Nationals have scored three runs in two games and 27 innings and tonight they face one of the toughest lefties in baseball in Madison Bumgarner. Between the bad offense and the possibility of playing a better matchup by starting right hander Ryan Zimmerman, someone — probably a lefty — has gotta be benched. The candidates are Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Adam LaRoche.

Zimmerman will not play third base, Adam Kilgore reports. Mostly because of his arm but also because, dudes, Anthony Rendon is the only Nat who has been hitting. That means he either plays left field with Harper moving to center and Span sitting, left field with Harper sitting or first base with LaRoche sitting.  Looks like Harper could be the odd man out:

The Nationals’ other, more remote option includes benching Span, playing Harper in center field and Zimmerman in left. Williams seemed to suggest Span would play, saying facing Bumgarner may actually help break his slump.

“Sometimes lefty-lefty matchups get guys back on line a little bit,” Williams said. “So we’ll see how the lineup shakes out and if he’s in there, hopefully that can get him back on line, and we hope ready for Game 4 and beyond.”

Which, whatever dude. Small sample size matchups don’t mean a ton, but Harper is 3 for 9 with a homer off Bumgarner. More importantly, he’s the better hitter overall and I’m not sure why you’d use a playoff elimination game to jump-start Span. That’s what you do in July, not October. If Span plays and Zimmerman handles first, well, you’re sitting LaRoche. He’s obviously not great against lefties, but he has pop which is more than you say for Span. A final consideration: Doug Fister is on the mound. He’s a ground ball pitcher, making outfield defense way less important. If Harper has to track down crap in the gaps in center, well, you got other problems.

Lineups will be out in a couple of hours, I presume. One hopes that a team struggling to score runs puts forth a lineup with its best hitters in it. But Matt Williams hasn’t made all the moves people would hope he’d make this series, so who knows?

Nationals’ starting pitching carrying them into World Series

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In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.

In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.

The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.

Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.

It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.

The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.