The Washington Nationals have played four postseason games. They used Stephen Strasburg in relief in their first postseason game, Max Scherzer in their third and Patrick Corbin in their fourth.
This is not a plan. This is disaster relief, a tightrope above an inferno. Corbin fell off Sunday, and the Nationals are facing elimination Monday.
If the Dodgers win this National League Division Series, the turning point came in the sixth inning Sunday. The Nationals had the Dodgers right where they wanted them. They still lost by six runs.
The Dodgers are hard enough to beat as it is, what with their 106 victories during the regular season. Good luck trying to beat them with a six-man pitching staff.
The Nationals failed Sunday. After winning by using their Game 4 starter in relief in Game 2, they used their Game 1 starter in relief in Game 3. Corbin gave the Nationals two outs rather than two innings. He gave up six runs, matching his season high.
“It just stinks,” he said. “I feel like I let these guys down.”
The Dodgers have by no means clinched the series, even as the Nationals must win consecutive elimination games to advance. Their scheduled starters, after all, are Scherzer and Strasburg.
“I think we’re weirdly comfortable right now,” Washington reliever Sean Doolittle said.
In order to get any length out of a starter used in relief, the pitch count needs to remain low. That is an enormous challenge against the Dodgers, a team unusually adept at running up the pitch count.
The Nationals made 207 pitches Sunday, including 122 in the four innings mishandled by the Washington bullpen.
“You have to ask so much of guys sometimes in order to beat this team,” Doolittle said. “It’s a huge challenge.”
The statistics suggested the Nationals might have made their gravest mistake by not bringing in Corbin an inning sooner.
As Washington starter Anibal Sanchez began the fifth inning, the left-handed Corbin warmed in the bullpen. The Dodgers had the pitcher’s spot leading off, followed by left-handed batters Joc Pederson and Max Muncy. That would mean Sanchez would be taking a third turn through the Dodgers’ lineup, and that appeared to be a bad idea.
Sanchez had given up more home runs this season when he faced a lineup the third time than when he faced the lineup the first two times combined.
But Sanchez was spinning a shutout, and he had struck out eight in the first four innings. Statistics be damned.
He got the first two outs of the fifth inning. Muncy crushed a home run, but Sanchez retired the right-handed Justin Turner.
The Nationals exhaled. They had gotten five innings out of Sanchez, they had the lead, and they had their $140-million starter primed to start an inning, rather than putting him in an uncomfortable spot by rushing him into the middle of an inning.
If Corbin could provide a couple scoreless innings, the Nationals could patch the rest of the game with Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, the only relievers they appear to trust.
“It really felt like, even though it was 2-1, that we were controlling the game,” Doolittle said.
So onto the sixth inning. Corbin’s first two pitches to Cody Bellinger were strikes, but the next three were balls. On the eighth pitch, Bellinger singled, his first hit of the series.
Corbin struck out Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock, and the Nationals’ strategy appeared brilliant.
Corbin did not get another out. He could not finish off three batters he started with an 0-and-2 count. David Freese singled, Russell Martin doubled, Chris Taylor walked, Enrique Hernandez doubled and Muncy walked.
That was all for Corbin. With Turner’s home run off reliever Wander Suero, this was the 2-4-6-8 line on Corbin: two walks, four hits, six runs, eight batters faced.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez said the target for Corbin had been 35 pitches. He hit the target, but he blew the lead. After the game, Corbin told Martinez he would be ready to pitch in Game 4. He just might need to.