Column: How the Nationals should plan for the Wild Card Game

September 23, 2019

You’re not supposed to talk about it. That’s a thing, in baseball and any other sport. You’re not supposed to look ahead, to take things for granted, to assume the Washington Nationals are going to make the playoffs. It’s why this tweet will forever live in infamy.

Anyway, we’re gonna talk about it.

After the Cubs’ epic collapse over the weekend, Washington is all but assured of a spot in the NL Wild Card Game. Assuming they get there, the Nats need to throw convention to the wind and be honest about their strengths and weaknesses if they are going to advance out of a playoff round for the first time in team history.

Let’s assume the Nats don’t need to play a tiebreaker game (not entirely a safe assumption just yet, but here we are). With their recent reshuffling of the rotation, Max Scherzer is lined up to throw Game 162, a Sunday home affair against the Indians, in Washington, with Stephen Strasburg on turn for the Tuesday Wild Card Game. If the Nats have already clinched before Sunday, Scherzer could be held back to start Tuesday.

Regardless of whether the Nats need to win on the final Sunday of the regular season to ensure a home game, they should hold Scherzer back. He’s been the best pitcher over the last five years in all of baseball and is the team’s emotional leader. It’s more important to have him pitching with your season on the line than to get the game in D.C., where win-or-go-home games haven’t exactly been kind to the franchise anyway.

Take away Scherzer’s surreal, disastrous inning of relief in Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS (a game he should have started for an inning, rather than come into in relief, but that’s another story), and he has pitched to a 2.95 ERA in three National League playoff starts.

In his last two postseason starts, Scherzer has taken a shutout into the seventh inning. He’s faltered after that point, but this has been a trend throughout his postseason career. In 13 postseason starts, Scherzer’s ERA through the first six innings of the game is a solid 2.70 (22 ER/73.1 IP). After that? He’s allowed eight earned runs in 5.0 innings, a ghastly 14.40 ERA.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched last week’s start in St. Louis. His ERA in the 1st-6th this year: 2.60. From the 7th inning on: 4.58.

So, Scherzer’s good for six. Naturally, the question then becomes how to get the final nine outs. Given the bullpen’s further implosions in Miami this weekend, all but assuring them the worst relief ERA in the National League this season, the answers aren’t obvious.

Manager Davey Martinez has been limited in his reliable relief options, and the Nats unwillingness to pay the price for higher-end relief (and odd decision-making with the arms available in the system) has left them a very good team with a glaring weak spot. When you consider the shaky traditional relief options and Martinez’s seeming intractableness in bending necessarily with the game, the best move the front office can make is to limit his options to his best arms and chart a game plan of how to use them.

Because that’s the beauty of a one-game playoff — everyone is available and convention doesn’t matter. Stephen Strasburg’s last regular season start should be Thursday, Patrick Corbin’s Saturday. That gives both plenty of rest to throw at least an inning instead of a bullpen, with Strasburg available for much more, if Scherzer falters earlier on, or if a vital pinch-hitting spot comes up before the sixth. Those two can be lined up, depending on the Milwaukee lineup, to take on an inning apiece. That leaves you with the entire bullpen to match up for the final outs, with Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle first up.

Anibal Sanchez provides a solid strike-thrower (highest percentage of first-pitch strikes in the rotation other than Scherzer), available in emergency relief if the game goes extra innings and you need extended innings. Keep Wander Suero, who’s allowed just one home run since June 5, if you need an out somewhere. Keep Tanner Rainey (.137/.299/.211 vs. RHB) for a tough righty. Keep Austin Voth, another guy who’s thrown well lately and can get you extra outs if the game goes long.

Is there anyone else behind that bullpen door that you trust not to end up in some other team’s end-of-season highlight video?

Teams usually leave extra starters off the roster in exchange for extras position players for the Wild Card Game, as they can reset their personnel once they reach the next round. The Nats should still carry extra bats, but evaluate which relievers they absolutely can’t give the ball with their season on the line in a single-game elimination scenario and leave them at home, keeping their starting rotation — the second-best in baseball — to pitch in relief instead.

The baseball world watched Buck Showalter’s galaxy-brained logic hole in the 2016 AL Wild Card Game in horror as he left Zach Britton, his best reliever, in the bullpen in a tie game the Orioles would lose 5-2. Washington fans certainly remember Strasburg warming up but never entering Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS in San Francisco as the Nats were eliminated.

The Nationals have a chance to rewrite their postseason history of questionable decision-making and epic collapses. That starts with getting the roster right next week.

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