“This ain’t football. We do this every day.” So said the late Earl Weaver. Unfortunately, every day doesn’t last forever. And even with the World Series tied at two games each, it feels a little as though the Nationals are running out of every day.
The truest cliche ever attached to Billy Martin is that he managed a season as though the future didn’t exist. In the regular season that meant pitchers left in ruin before their times. In a short series, though, especially when “World” precedes “Series,” it means the future is now.
Nats manager Dave Martinez’s let’s-go-1-and-0 today philosophy got the Nats to the World Series in the first place. It also got him two devastating wins, outscoring the Astros 17-7, in the Astros’ playpen. But when he needed it the most in Games Three and Four, it didn’t show up.
His batting grinders suddenly forgot how to hit with men on second or better and also with two outs while they were at it. And Martinez forgot the urgency when he needed a stopper like five minutes ago.
Granted Martinez doesn’t have the greatest overall bullpen, but when he needed a stopper drastically in Game Four he was more concerned about having two available for Game Five with Max Scherzer due to start than in stopping the bleeding with a mere three-run deficit on Saturday night.
And Astros manager A.J. Hinch, down 2-0 in the Series, wasn’t afraid to play and think in the absolute moment. Zack Greinke headed for Game Three trouble? Get him out of there before he gets humiliated. The Nats looking ornery at the plate? Wheel in Will Harris, Hinch’s absolute best relief pitcher, and wipe the ornery off their faces before it means disaster. Can’t afford to hold him just for the late hold.
So rookie Tanner Rainey, with the live fastball and the deadly slider but still-lingering command issues, opened the Game Four seventh with back-to-back walks before getting Jose Altuve to fly out? Where was Daniel Hudson? Where was Sean Doolittle? Not like they were overworked; they didn’t even get to poke their noses out of their holes in Game Three.
Where, even, was Wander Suero, who shook away his arson tendencies enough this postseason and who’d gotten rid of Michael Brantley coming up in the only time he’d ever faced the Astro left fielder?
This time, Martinez had to be Santa Claus and send Fernando Rodney out to deal with Brantley, who’d hit .468 lifetime off the old man prior to Game Four. And after Brantley lined a single into short center to load the ducks on the pond, Martinez stuck with the old man anyway. Experience counts, right?
This is Rodney’s lifetime World Series experience: 6.00 ERA. This was Rodney’s 2019 Series experience before Game Four: one clean shutout inning in Game Two; two thirds shutout inning in Game Three, except that it was about as clean as a corpse attacked by rats: entering with a man on, then stolen base and a throwing error, walk, stolen base, rundown force at the plate, intentional walk, inning-ending force out.
That‘s what Martinez sent to the Game Four mound in the top of the seventh with Brantley checking in and first and third. With the game a still-manageable three-run difference. With neither Hudson nor Doolittle anywhere to be seen.
Then Brantley behaved just the way you’d expect as a .468 hitter against that pitcher and lined a bases-loading single up the pipe. And Alex Bregman, going in knowing Rodney still has stuff and it’s best approached prudently, drew a bead on the fastball that didn’t sink the way the MVP candidate usually expects it to sink.
With one swing Bregman sank the Nats into a two-all Series tie and Nationals Park into the Tomb of the Saturday Soldiers Who Wish They Were Unknown.
A Nats fan would love to go back to the end of the sixth and whisper in Martinez’s ear, “Think ahead, Dave. You need a stopper right now. Hudson and Doolittle haven’t had to work since Game One. They ain’t H-D-H of the 2014-15 Royals but they’re as close as you’ve got. And Hudson’s just as much hell on lefties as righties this year if you got Tucker leading off to pinch hit.”
Then, when he or she had Martinez’s ear locked in tight, continue: “You bring in Hudson and you might be out of the inning with nothing more than maybe an excuse-us base hit along the way. Then you bring the old man in since he’s better in a clean inning but when he joins up with men on it’s disaster. And if your bats remember how not to just make traffic but get it home without a pileup, especially with two outs like during that magnificent run from May forward, you still got Doolittle.”
And then, when Martinez really perked up, drive it home straight, no chaser: “You can still go to either one in Game Five if Max the Knife needs help or gets through six or even seven without the sky falling in on him. And you got a travel day back to Houston for Game Six. They won’t be wrung like mops. They’ll be there for the asking and you know you’d better ask if needed. Remember all that and live.”
An Astros fan, of course, would prefer Martinez let himself get out-generaled by Hinch a couple of more times. Preferably in Game Five if the Astros find their way past Max the Knife and send the Series back to Houston needing just one more win to return to the Promised Land.
Except that Martinez just lost his Knife. On Sunday afternoon the word broke that Scherzer suffered neck spasms late Saturday night and the discomfort was too much worse Sunday to send him to the mound. “For Max to miss a game, especially a significant game like this, he’s got to be really hurting,” Martinez said Sunday.
Indeed it does. And it looks like the Nats now have to try the unthinkable: a bullpen game to open, with righthander Joe Ross. Unless Martinez wants to roll some real dice and hand the ball to Stephen Strasburg in the pinch, since Strasburg would be on regular rest Sunday night.
The time for Martinez to get himself and his Nats back to that go 1-0 today philosophy is now. The future isn’t waiting for Dupont Circle traffic to lighten up. It’s coming in by helicopter.