Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in tow, the Nationals' bullpen defies its reputation

Tim BrownMLB columnist

LOS ANGELES — This bullpen, man. This damned bullpen in Washington D.C. is some collection of survivors and has-beens and can-bes and scar tissue and facial hair and thunderclap contact and breathtaking falls and Darwinian endurance and on two nights this week alone Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, all stuck together with something that might be ear wax.

This bullpen is so gloriously self-aware, so defiantly willing, so exhausting, it really is a wonder, like a mutt with one eye sewn shut and both hips going and such bad breath, that’s been around so long you could hardly consider life without her.

And, yes, that’s right, three days after Strasburg followed Scherzer when the Nationals beat the Milwaukee Brewers to escape the wild-card round, Scherzer followed Strasburg when the Nationals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-2, on Friday night here to tie this National League Division Series at a game apiece, because at the end it can be ugly, it can be something slightly less than ugly, but it’s always something.

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Two wins into a postseason that will require 12 of them, Strasburg and Scherzer have combined to get 45 of the 54 outs in those wins. That’s maybe not sustainable. It may also be their chance. And as long as the co-aces are game, and as long as the off days keep coming on schedule, and as long as the survivors and scar-tissued among them can be leveraged prudently, then keep ‘em coming. Game 3 is Sunday in D.C.

“For me,” Scherzer said, “you bring in whenever you have to bring it. It’s the playoffs. When your number gets called, go out there and compete with everything you’ve got.”

On Tuesday, Scherzer went the first five innings, Strasburg went the next three. These three days later, Strasburg went the first six and Scherzer pitched the eighth (between Sean Doolittle in the seventh and Daniel Hudson in the ninth) in what would be a 4-2 win. And by late Friday night, after he’d required 14 pitches to strike out three Dodgers, Scherzer’s scheduled start in Game 3 was in question, though they’d have the better part of two days to sort that out. What was more pressing for an organization that hasn’t won a playoff series in going on four decades was a split of two games at Dodger Stadium, and therefore was managing the innings that came after — or before, or between — Scherzer and Strasburg. They are the Nationals’ best two pitchers and the postseason does allow for creativity and the object is not to lose those games in particular.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 04: Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals pitches in relief in the eighth inning in game two of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 04, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 04: Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals pitches in relief in the eighth inning in game two of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 04, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

“You know, before the series started, before we even got to the playoffs, our game plan was to try to utilize these guys the best way possible without disrupting their starts,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “And we talked to all of them and they have all been on board. So it's just part of it. When you get to these games, I've said this before, you're playing to win one game. Every day's crucial. We had a chance to win today. And I told Max, if the game's close then we'll use you. And we did that.”

So, Strasburg was brilliant three days after throwing 34 pitches against the Brewers, this time retiring the first 14 batters, walking none, striking out 10 and allowing a sixth-inning run. And, after Doolittle had allowed a seventh-inning home run, Scherzer stomped in from the bullpen and stomped out after blowing through three batters, his fourth postseason relief appearance and first of undeniable success. And Hudson, the veteran who became the Nationals’ regular closer in mid-September, six weeks after being traded to the Nationals, left the bases loaded and Corey Seager despaired in a scoreless ninth.

“We are not ignorant to the fact of what the numbers say,” Doolittle said after they’d endured what they’d endured.

But, then, about every night one or two or three of them will be handed a baseball and be asked to get this lefty or that inning or to navigate something that looks dodgy or terrible, as that’s always been the job and always will be the job. Through 162 games this bullpen, this damned bullpen, had popped an ERA near 6, which was worst in baseball. In three postseason games the relievers not named Scherzer or Strasburg have given up five runs in six innings.

Into a series against an offense — the Dodgers’ — that held the highest OPS against right-handed pitchers in the National League during the regular season, the Nationals bullpen brought one left-handed reliever, Doolittle, and one 42-year-old right-handed reliever with a changeup, Fernando Rodney. Otherwise, it also brought Hudson, who carries his share of the scar tissue in that bullpen and also a 1.44 ERA as a National, and nearing the end of a week in which he’d followed Strasburg to close out the Brewers, he followed Scherzer against the Dodgers. Five batters in, the bases were loaded and Seager was hacking at 97-mph fastballs and 53,000 people were on their feet and this was where things often enough had gone wrong for the otherwise sound Nationals.

Hudson threw seven fastballs to start the at-bat. Seager fouled four of them, three after there were two strikes. Doolittle stood on the second step of the stairs that led to the hallway behind the Nationals’ dugout. While he’d only discovered it in the preceding five or so minutes, he’d also determined it was his lucky spot, because sometimes a man just senses these things. He’d been in the bullpen when Scherzer arrived near the end of Strasburg’s outing, found that curious, then watched as Scherzer began to warm, and thought, “Oh, no way, he really is going to pitch.” A couple innings later, the Nationals still led, they’d figured it all out for a night, and now they’d need one more strike, which is how games end in glory or devastation, depending on what happens next.

“I know the results haven’t been as consistent as we’ve wanted as a group,” he’d say later, and insist he was proud of how they’d dedicated themselves every day in spite of some of those results, how they’d stuck together and determined it would be different come October. “It doesn’t hurt when you have Max coming down there to get three outs.

“I mean, our starting pitching is absolutely our strength. The more we can get those guys in the game, the better our chances are … We’d cobble it together and get it done.”

So he stood on that lucky step, because why not, and watched catcher Kurt Suzuki make one more trip to the mound, to discuss with Hudson that one last pitch, and thought, well, maybe the slider. Except Suzuki was suggesting to Hudson another fastball or a changeup. Hudson answered, “Slider.”

At which point, Hudson threw his finest, tightest, most precise slider of the night. Seager swung over it. Dodger Stadium went quiet. The Nationals had tied the series. And the bullpen had hung on.

“I was kinda pumped,” Hudson said. “I don’t think I ever called my shot before.”

He laughed. He’s been the best of them lately, maybe outside the two new guys, who are only associate members.

“It’s a special feeling,” Hudson said.

Man, this bullpen.

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