The Nationals’ bullpen was really, really bad during the regular season. Going by ERA, only the Orioles had a worse bullpen, 5.79 to 5.68. It was, to put it succinctly, a glaring issue for the Nationals heading into the postseason.
In the National League wild card game, manager Davey Martinez decided to work around leaning on his bullpen by relying on his starters. After Max Scherzer coughed up three runs in five innings against the Brewers, Stephen Strasburg entered the game in relief for the first time in his career. It worked, as he scattered two hits with no walks and four strikeouts over three innings of work. Daniel Hudson, who went to the Nationals from the Blue Jays at the trade deadline, picked up the save with a scoreless ninth after some heroics by Juan Soto in the previous inning.
The Nationals’ bullpen turned a manageable 2-0 deficit versus the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLDS into a 6-0 deficit as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow four runs over two innings. In Game 2, after Strasburg held the Dodgers to one run over six innings, Martinez brought in closer Sean Doolittle for the seventh inning. Doolittle gave up a solo homer before handing the ball to Max Scherzer, who struck out all three batters he faced in the eighth. Hudson came on in the ninth, loaded the bases with two outs, and managed to escape by striking out Corey Seager to end the game.
Martinez continued to lean on his starters in Game 3 but it backfired big time. Aníbal Sánchez was terrific over five innings, limiting the Dodgers to one run while striking out nine. Martinez called on lefty Patrick Corbin, pitching on three days’ rest, to start the sixth inning in relief given the plethora of lefties at the top of the Dodgers’ lineup. It did not work out. Corbin allowed a leadoff single to Cody Bellinger, but got back-to-back strikeouts of Seager and A.J. Pollock. The inning continued, however, when pinch-hitter David Freese poked a single into right field. Russell Martin then plated two runs with a double to deep left-center field, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead.
Corbin walked Chris Taylor in what was becoming an interminable sixth inning. Kiké Hernández, pinch-hitting for Pederson, drilled a double to left field to bring home two more runs, making it 5-2. Corbin intentionally walked Max Muncy, who homered in the fifth inning, before being mercifully removed from the game in favor of Wander Suero. The Dodgers continued to swing hot bats as Justin Turner crushed a Suero cutter over the bullpen in left-center field for a three-run homer, bolstering the Dodgers’ lead to 8-2.
It seems that even Nationals starters aren’t immune to the disease that seems to be pitching out of their bullpen. After a seven-run sixth inning, the Dodgers look poised to take a 2-1 series lead in the NLDS. The Nationals will need to have a big turnaround to avoid being pushed out of the Division Series for the fifth time in as many tries since 2012.