The Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers will take distinctly different pitching paths in Tuesday night’s National League wild-card game with the same destination in mind: a trip to Los Angeles to open the NL Division Series against the Dodgers on Thursday night.
The Nationals will lean heavily on a rotation that ranked second in the major leagues in ERA (3.53) and strikeouts (1,010) and — they hope — as little as possible on a bullpen that has the worst ERA (5.66) of any playoff team ever.
Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner who went 11-7 with a 2.92 ERA and 243 strikeouts, will start the one-game playoff, with an expectation he will go at least six or seven innings.
The first man out of the bullpen in Nationals Park could very well be Stephen Strasburg, the right-hander who went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA and 251 strikeouts in 33 starts and has not pitched in relief in 10 big league seasons. The next man up could be left-hander Patrick Corbin, the team’s No. 3 starter.
“I brought Stephen into my office and asked him if he’d be willing to come out of the bullpen and his response was, ‘I’ve closed before in college. I’m ready to do whatever you ask me to do,’ ” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “We’ll also have Corbin available. We have to win this game, so everybody will be ready when called upon.”
The Brewers, meanwhile, will lean on a deep and versatile bullpen that ranked second in baseball in saves (50), fourth in strikeouts (761) and seventh in batting average against (.235).
Brandon Woodruff will start, but the right-hander returned from a left-oblique strain Sept. 17 and is expected to throw only two innings. Ace left-hander Jordan Lyles, who will be on five days’ rest, could replace Woodruff and pitch several innings.
But after that, Milwaukee will turn to its relief aces — left-hander Brent Suter, who is 4-0 with an 0.49 ERA in nine September games after returning from Tommy John surgery; left-hander Drew Pomeranz (2.39 ERA in 25 games), right-hander Junior Guerra (9-5, 3.55 ERA in 72 games) and Josh Hader (2.62 ERA, 37 saves and 138 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings, a major league record for left-hander relievers).
“Yeah, we’re different, and I think playoff teams should be different,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I think that’s cool. Teams have to play to their strengths, take advantage of their personnel. They’re starting a guy who is probably going to the Hall of Fame. He’s really good. I think our depth and our numbers are what makes our pitching good.”
Both teams are on a roll. The Brewers, 7½ games back in the NL Central and five games out of a wild-card spot after a Sept. 5 loss to the Chicago Cubs, won 18 of their next 20 games and went 20-7 in September despite losing NL most valuable player candidate Christian Yelich to a broken right kneecap Sept. 10.
The Nationals were 12 games under .500 (24-32) on May 29 but went 69-37 over the final four months and won their last eight entering the postseason.
The Brewers feel primed for a winner-take-all game after surviving a September full of them.
“It makes you live in the moment, play every pitch like it’s your last,” Suter said of the wild-card format. “We’ve really done that for the last month or so. Every game is a must win, and it’s worked out well for us.”
Counsell said left fielder Ryan Braun, who suffered a calf injury Friday, will start, but center fielder Lorenzo Cain is questionable because of a left-ankle sprain he suffered Saturday.