HOUSTON -- When the 2019 World Series begins Tuesday night (GameTracker), the Washington Nationals will again lean on their star-studded rotation to carry them to a series win. The Nationals are a perfect 6-0 in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg starts this postseason, and 13-2 in games Scherzer, Strasburg, or Patrick Corbin appear.
To date, the Nationals have played 10 postseason games and they've thrown 90 innings in those 10 games. Six pitchers have combined to throw a whopping 81 of those 90 innings:
- Stephen Strasburg: 22 innings (three starts, one relief appearance)
- Max Scherzer: 20 innings (three starts, one relief appearances)
- Patrick Corbin: 13 1/3 innings (two starts, three relief appearances)
- Anibal Sanchez: 12 2/3 innings (two starts)
- Sean Doolittle: 7 1/3 innings (six relief appearances)
- Daniel Hudson: 5 2/3 innings (six relief appearances)
Against the Cardinals in the NLCS, Washington's reliance on those six pitchers was even more extreme. They threw 33 of 36 innings in the four-game sweep. The Dodgers pushed the Nationals relief crew a little more in the NLDS, forcing pitchers other than the big six to throw six innings in the five-game series.
"We're going to play every game to go 1-0, as I talked about all year long," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said when asked about using his starters in relief again. "With that being said, if there's a situation that we feel like a starter could benefit on us capitalizing and winning a game, then so be it. But there's seven games, so we've got to be very careful of how we do things."
The Astros are much more Dodgers than Cardinals, with all due respect. Houston has a powerhouse offense and a deep lineup, one that had the lowest strikeout rate (18.2 percent) and the highest walk rate (10.1 percent) in baseball during the regular season. They also had the third lowest chase rate (27.4 percent) in the game. The Astros make you work for every out.
"Just a lot of different ways they can beat you," Scherzer said about Houston's lineup. "Predominantly right-handed but they've got a couple of left-handed bats in there that are definitely big-time threats. And just what they do up and down the order. It's a complete lineup one through nine. You've got to be executing every single pitch you go out there and throw."
In the four-game sweep over the Cardinals, the Nationals were able to rely on heavily on six pitchers because it was a short series, and their starters gave them length. The Astros probably won't afford them the same luxury. They're more likely to elevate the starter's pitch count and extend the series beyond four games. That means Washington will need more bullpen weapons to emerge to help carry the workload.
The most likely candidate: Tanner Rainey. The hard-throwing right-hander has struck out four in four innings this postseason, and seems to be earning more trust as the postseason progresses. Rainey walked 38 batters in 48 1/3 regular season innings, which is a risky control profile against a team as good as the Astros, but he also struck out 74 in those 48 1/3 innings.
Veteran changeup specialist Fernando Rodney is on the World Series roster, as are righties Javy Guerra, Joe Ross, and Wander Suero. Those last three have combined to get one (1) out this postseason. That was Suero in Game 4 of the NLDS. He faced three batters and went homer, double, ground out. Not the most confidence-inspiring effort.
In the six-game ALCS win, the Astros forced the Yankees to dip deep into their bullpen each game, and by the end of the series New York's bullpen was taxed. It's true the Yankees don't have the Nationals starters. The Nationals also don't have the Yankees bullpen. The Yankees made the bullpen thing work because they were four-to-five relievers deep.
Chances are the Nationals will need someone other than their top six pitchers to get high-leverage outs in the World Series. Rainey is the best candidate to do so, but who knows, maybe it'll be Rodney or Guerra. Ross and his wipeout slider figure to match up well against some righty hitters at the bottom of Houston's lineup as well.
The Nationals will ride their starters and the Doolittle/Hudson relief tandem as much as possible in the World Series, and hey, it may work. Those guys are awfully talented. In the event the Astros force Martinez to dip into his middle relievers, Washington will need someone to come through with some big outs. Those middle relievers could ultimately decide the series.