D.C. traffic jams don’t jam the Astros

2019-10-26 GeorgeSpringerCarlosCorrea.jpg

George Springer and Carlos Correa celebrate the Astros’ Game Three win Friday night.

The Washington Post‘s nonpareil baseball essayist, Thomas Boswell, couldn’t contain his joy. World Series Game Three loomed in Nationals Park, and Boswell—who never kept quiet about wanting to see baseball back in Washington in all the years it was absent—was almost beside himself.

With every post-season game,” he tweeted, “the Nats crowd arrives earlier & earlier. I just looked up and realized the place is full—FULL—and it’s 30 minutes before first pitch. And I don’t even know how long it’s been that way. Metro stop & Half Street jammed, all red, hours before game.

And well enough before Nats Park jammed full, the word came forth that Donald Trump wouldn’t be invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch, even though President Tweety planned to attend Game Five if a Game Five proved necessary. The usual suspects on one side hemmed, the usual suspects on the other side hawed, but just because a man is a screwball doesn’t necessarily mean he can throw one.

Finally, both sides came out of their dugouts to line up on the foul lines. The Nats played the gracious hosts and laid the red carpets out from both dugouts for the Astros and the Nats to trod on their way out to the lines. The appropriately named church singer D.C. Washington sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Then Astros leadoff hitter George Springer gave Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki a good-luck pat on the chest protector as he checked in at the plate. The two exchanged friendly glances. And from that moment until the final out, we learned that the Astros are less unnerved by Washington traffic jams than Washingtonians are about Dupont Circle rush hours.

It proved easier for the clunkiest SUV to pass through the eye of a pileup than it did for the Nats to cash in all but one of the men they planted on the pillows en route the Astros’ 4-1 Game Three win Friday night. All the adoring home racket in the ballpark couldn’t coax the Nats into cashing in nobody from second base or better all night long, any more than all the adoring racket in Minute Paid Park stopped them from bushwhacking the Astros in Games One and Two.

This time, the Astros’ bats produced a strong enough version of the ones that delivered the American League’s third-most runs in the regular season, even if they weren’t yet total destroyers again. The Astros in the field made it look as though Game Two was just a one-in-a-thousand nightmare. And the Astro bullpen, pressed into service after four and a third innings, actually out-pitched starter Zack Greinke.

In other words, the Astros made this World Series look good, close, and tight all over again, even if the road team is doing the winning so far. And they guaranteed themselves at least a Game Five with Gerrit Cole on the mound. But the better news for the Astros was rediscovering their better selves just in time.

Overcoming 2-0 and now 2-1 posteseason deficits is a lot simpler than being in the hole 3-0. And the Astros have been 2-1 before. They won a World Series two years ago after falling into such a hole. They can afford to get their Alfred E. Neuman on now. What—us worry?

Which is exactly how they came into Game Three after a players’ meeting following the Game Two disaster. But don’t kid yourselves. They didn’t win Game Three because of any sort of rah-rah or black magic, even if they might have been tempted to rock around the cauldron in the clubhouse beforehand. They won Game Three because they’re still one helluva baseball team.

“The key was that we stayed confident,” said Jose Altuve, who wears the sash as the Astros’ true heart and soul, and who continued his own solid hitting pace, told reporters after the game. “We didn’t panic. Yes, the first two games, we didn’t do some things, but we keep believing in us. And guess what? Tonight we went out there and we make it happen.”

They made it happen and the Nats didn’t. The Nats became the first World Series team to go 0-for-10 with men on second or better in a Fall Classic game since the 2008 Phillies and the seventeenth in Series history overall. The good news for the Nats is that those Phillies went on to win the Series, anyway.

They’ve been in worse places this year and lived to tell about them. But they also have to remind themselves that the Astros weren’t going to look like a lost tribe forever. The Astros didn’t put up three straight 100+ win seasons or get to shoot for a second World Series trophy in three years by cowering after any pair of back-to-back losses.

They also loved getting to play what their future Hall of Fame pitcher Justin Verlander called old-time baseball. “Tension, traffic, strategy, decisions,” Verlander told reporters Friday night. “People were standing up most of the time. These are the two best teams in baseball at putting the ball into play. It should be like this.”

Give the Astros gifts, though, and they will say, “Thank you, sir,” before either doing what Astros usually do or making sure the other guys don’t. And Nats manager Dave Martinez gave them a carnation wrapped in a big red bow almost halfway through the game.

The Nats’ Game Three starter Anibal Sanchez gritted and ground his way through four innings, three runs, and no small volume of Astro peskiness, then got a small reward when Ryan Zimmerman led off the bottom of the fourth with a full-count walk and, a strikeout later, Victor Robles shot one fair past third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line for an RBI triple.

But Sanchez was due up next with the absence of a designated hitter in the National League park. Perhaps even the Astros couldn’t believe Martinez elected to let Sanchez hit rather than pinch hit for him despite having five serviceable-at-minimum bats on the Game Three bench, namely Matt Adams, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Howie Kendrick, and Mr. Baby Shark himself, Gerardo Parra.

And, despite the fact that, unlike Greinke, who handles a bat very well, Sanchez with a bat is tantamount to having Lucky Luciano heading a task force to battle organised crime. And for all Sanchez’s heroics to open the National League Championship Series, he looked only too human Friday night with the Astros hitting his pitches firmly enough and knowing opponents hit .288 against him the third time around the order all year.

Yet with rookie Tanner Rainey warming in the pen all inning, Martinez let Sanchez hit. Then, he bunted foul for a strikeout and Trea Turner couldn’t push Robles home. And then Sanchez went out to work the top of the fifth, surrendering a run. Then, he went out for the sixth.

With one out Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos swung for the history books with a high liner off the left field foul pole net for what proved the Astros’ insurance run. It made number three in the first World Series ever to feature three catchers hitting bombs while in games as catchers. Suzuki and the Astros’ Martin Maldonado also did it, both in Game Two, and Maldonado after he replaced Chirinos behind the dish late in the game.

For just about the first time in the Series it left Martinez looking foolish. He had a chance to let bigger men do the clutch hitting in the bottom of the fourth, but he may have let his edginess about most of his bullpen not named Fernando Rodney, Daniel Hudson, or Sean Doolittle overcome his need in the moment.

When Grandpa Rodney, forgotten man Joe Ross, and apparent former arsonist Wander Suero pitched three and two thirds’ shutout ball following Sanchez’s evening-ending walk to pinch hitter Kyle Tucker (right after Chirinos’s net shot), it only amplified Martinez’s temporary brain vapor.

Now it almost seemed like a too-distant memory that Robles stole a first-inning run from the Astros when, after Springer opened the game beating out a nubber toward the mound, Altuve sent him to the rear end of the field where he reached up and back and made a twist-and-shout one-handed catch on the track just in front of the fence.

And it wasn’t as though the Astros battered the Nats into submission, Chirinos’s blast to one side. With Carlos Correa aboard on a one-out double down the left field line in the top of the second, Josh Reddick dumped a quail into shallow left that neither Turner out from shortstop nor Juan Soto coming in from left could reach as Correa alertly got his Road Runner on. It didn’t hurt him that Soto’s throw home took off like an airplane and sailed above both his catcher and his pitcher backing the play.

Altuve tore a double down the left field line leading off the top of the third that gave Soto trouble and an error when the ball rolled under the pads on the walls and Soto couldn’t find the handle soon enough to stop Altuve from making third. Then Brantley whacked a grounder that took a classic ricochet off the mound, upside Sanchez’s right side, and let Altuve practically cruise home.

And in the fifth, after Springer opened first pitch, first out on a smash to shortstop, Altuve hit a liner that bounced into left near the line for another double, and Brantley settled for old-fashioned through-the-infield hitting instead of playing Ricochet Rabbit, shooting a clean single through the right side to score the third Astro run.

Sanchez’s grit didn’t stop him from looking nothing like the same junkyard dog who somehow got thatclose to no-hitting the Cardinals in the NLCS. Greinke’s outing wasn’t a lot prettier despite him limiting the Nats to one run, and times enough he looked to be running on wings and prayers.

So let’s count the ways the Nats made a guy who wasn’t having the easiest night of his life, plus the Astro bullpen, feel as though they were just taking leisurely strolls through an overcrowded Union Station:

* Anthony Rendon fought to a seventh pitch and banged a two-out double to left in the bottom of the first, but birthday boy Juan Soto grounded out for the side.

* Asdrubal Cabrera and Zimmerman opened the bottom of the second with back-to-back singles . . . but Suzuki looked at an eighth-pitch third strike after three fouls on 2-2, and Robles dialed Area Code 5-4-3.

* Turner and Adam Eaton with one out in the bottom of the third walked and nailed a base hit to left, respectively, and one out later Soto worked out a walk for ducks on the pond. Then Cabrera struck out on maybe the single filthiest breaking ball Greinke’s thrown all year long.

* Eaton led off the bottom of the fifth with a single and, two outs later, Cabrera lined a double toward the right field corner. That’s when Greinke’s night ended and Astro reliever Josh James’s would begin and end by putting Zimmerman into the 0-2 hole—not to mention spinning hard into a face plant when a fastball up and in got a little too far in, a pitch that wasn’t even close to intentional—letting Zimmerman escape to a full count, then striking him out swinging.

“Sometimes you just have to tip your cap,” Zimmerman said after the game. “3-2 changeup. That’s a pretty good pitch right there.” When Chirinos asked Zimmerman if he was all right after the unexpected spinout, Zimmerman still on the ground simply replied, “Man, that was a close one.”

* Parra pinch hit for Suzuki in the bottom of the sixth—to a rousing chorus of “Baby Shark” and the stands doing the shark clap ravenously—and struck out so furiously he walked back to the dugout fuming. But Astro reliever Brad Peacock walked Robles, and then Martinez sent Adams, a power hitter, up to hit . . . for Rodney. Adams walked, pushing Peacock out and Will Harris into the game. And Harris dispatched Turner—who fouled one off the family jewels and spent a few moments on the ground in less than a fine mood—with a swinging strikeout, before Eaton grounded out for the side.

* And Kendrick finally appeared in the bottom of the eighth to pinch hit . . . for Ross. He shot a one-out single into right center. But Astro reliever Joe Smith caught Robles looking at strike three and got Yan Gomes, who’d taken over for Suzuki in the seventh, to ground out to Bregman on the dead run.

That’s what the Astros call navigating Washington traffic jams. It’s what the Nats ought to call jaywalking. Not the way to see an eight-game postseason winning streak end. Not the most advisable way of transit when the Astros finally get something even mildly resembling their normal Astros on.

The only real Game Three nuisance other than the Nats’ inability to cash in their chips was plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. This was one issue on which both the Astros and the Nats could agree. Cederstrom called too many balls strikes and too many strikes balls against both sides, enough to make them wonder whether the strike zone would finally shrink to the size of a guitar pick before the game ended.

Astro manager A.J. Hinch looked like a genius for setting his table in order that the Nats’ best bats wouldn’t see much more than Greinke and the two best Astro relievers, Harris and closer Roberto Osuna. He’s going to have to look like Casey Stengel in Game Four.

Lacking the viable fourth starter the Nats happen to have in their Game Four starter Patrick Corbin, Hinch is going bullpen Saturday night with Jose Urquidy, a promising rookie, to open. And as solid as the pen was, the Nats did make most of them work a little harder even if they couldn’t get anyone home with a Secret Service escort Friday night.

But yes, folks, we have an honest-to-God World Series again. Anxious enough to prove falling short of the Series last year was a mere aberration, the Astros made sure of it.

They didn’t have to play like their regular-season juggernaut to do it. All they had to do was what anyone who’s ever lived in Washington for any length of time (I have) can tell you has all the simplicity of a spider web—navigate a traffic jam.

Slop go the Cardinals

2019-10-11 AnibalSanchez

Anibal Sanchez, appreciating the man who busted his Game One no-hit bid and the plate ump who called the game, as he leaves in the bottom of the eighth . . .

It looks as though the Cardinals have something else to worry about beside the Nationals’ three aces. There was a joker in the Nats’ deck Friday night.

And what he did in Game One of the National League Championship Series would have been a laugh and a half if he hadn’t had to face a pinch hitter who slapped a clean single off him in the bottom of the eight.

For seven and two-thirds innings Anibal Sanchez threatened to become baseball’s third postseason no-hit pitcher. He threw nothing like the hard stuff usually delivered by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Slop tossing doesn’t begin to cover it.

If you could swear you saw marshmallows going up to the plate until Jose Martinez delivered his hit, your eyes weren’t playing tricks. Sanchez’s fastest pitch barely crosses 90 miles an hour. His split finger fastball is more split than fast. His changeup is called a butterfly, but real butterflies come in like a squadron of fighter jets by comparison. His cutter wouldn’t cut a sheet of paper.

But they move. He moves them all around the strike zone. He and the Nats watched one after another Cardinal batter check in at the plate determined to hit that slop into the Mississippi River and wondering why their biggest swings were barely good for summer day camp softball hitting among ten year olds.

“I just tried to keep focused on every pitch that I’m going to throw,” Sanchez told reporters after the Nats finished what he started, a 2-0 Game One shutout in Busch Stadium. “I don’t want to miss any kind of pitch in the middle in the zone against those guys.”

He succeeded in ways even he probably didn’t fathom. He threw 103 pitches and—count ’em!—only two of them hit dead center of the strike zone while only two more hit immediately around it.

One of the two hitting dead center damn near meant disaster in the bottom of the eighth, when Tommy Edman, playing right field in Game One for the Cardinals, sent a cannon shot toward the right side. Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman picked the perfect moment to channel his inner Superman, diving like the Man of Steel on takeoff to snap his mitt around it before it landed for a base hit to short right.

Sanchez thought right then and there that he’d have a shot at finishing the no-hitter. A fly out later Martinez thought otherwise, pinch hitting for Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley, sending a full-count splitter into center for a clean base hit. The only Cardinal hit of the night.

“He was just hitting his spots and keeping us off balance all night,” said Edman, “and we just didn’t execute our plan very well.”

Time was when Sanchez threw harder, particularly what Gomes called “the power slider.” On Friday night he made a statement on behalf of junkballers the world over. You don’t need power to survive on the major league mound no matter what you throw. Especially when the other guys are about as good with off speed pitching as a hay fever sufferer is with pollen.

“When you kinda lose the power slider,” Gomes said of Sanchez, “there’s power in there (his heart) and power up there (his mind).” Pointing to his chest and his head. “He went out there, controlled the zone, controlled everything they were doing,” Gomes continued. “It’s almost like you get kind of a chuckle off them. When a guy like that can manipulate his speeds it’s pretty amazing.”

Manipulate his speeds? Sanchez’s swiftest pitch wouldn’t have equaled speed four on a Mixmaster. He folded ingredients, blended them gently, maybe mashed a few potatoes, but he wasn’t anywhere near enough power to roll out the attachments.

Almost the moment Martinez pulled up at first in the eighth, Nats manager Dave Martinez went to the mound to lift Sanchez for Sean Doolittle. The Busch crowd bathed Sanchez in a standing ovation that seemed six parts appreciation and half a dozen parts thank-God-he’s-finally-out-of-there.

Sanchez waved his glove in gestures of appreciation to the Cardinal who’d busted the no-no and to plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, who called the pitches. Hopefully, he had a similar gesture or word for Cardinals’ starter Miles Mikolas, whose own six splendid innings went for nothing partly because Sanchez was bound to hog the headlines.

“I had a rough regular season,” said Mikolas, the owner of a 4.16 regular season ERA. “I’m doing my best to make up for it in the postseason.”

Mikolas and six Cardinals relievers did their best to keep the Nats off their own game plan at the plate. Sure, they scored their first run thanks to a leadoff double by second baseman Howie Kendrick and a two-out double by catcher Yan Gomes in the second, and their second run thanks to a one-out triple by right fielder Adam Eaton and Kendrick’s two-out single in the seventh.

But they went 2-for-12 with men on second or beyond, stranded first and second in the sixth and the ninth, and the bases loaded in the fifth and the seventh. They could have gone for the Cardinals’ throats and settled for a couple of raps on the mouth. Lucky for them Sanchez’s lone walk and two accidental hit batsmen came to naught for the Cardinals, too.

The walk, to Wong with one out in the fourth, got dangerous after Goldschmidt flied out, when Wong stole second and took third on Gomes’s throwing error, but Sanchez got Ozuna to foul out to third baseman Anthony Rendon.

Pinch hitter Randy Arozarena—he who sent Cardinal manager Mike Shildt’s foul postgame rant viral for a spell after they won their division series—got plunked with one out in the sixth and stole second himself, then got pushed to third while Fowler grounded out to second, but Wong lined out softly to center to end that one.

And Yadier Molina with two out in the seventh got kissed between his shoulder blades with one of Sanchez’s butterflies but Matt Carpenter grounded out to first unassisted for his trouble.

Doolittle was on call for the end because Daniel Hudson was on quick paternity leave with his wife giving birth to their daughter. Not one Nat begrudged Hudson. “I think the mood of the guys in the bullpen,” Doolittle said afterward, “[was] we really wanted to find a way to pick him up and allow him to enjoy a really special moment with his wife and his family.”

“Apparently,” their skipper said, “the baby didn’t want to come out until later on this morning.”

Doolittle did his part, getting the asked-for four-out save almost effortlessly, luring Dexter Fowler into an eighth inning-ending grounder to third before throwing Kolten Wong out on a leadoff bunt attempt, luring Paul Goldschmidt into grounding out to Zimmerman at first unassisted, then striking Marcell Ozuna out swinging to end the game.

Thus did the Cardinals lose an NLCS opening game without having to deal with the Nats’ vaunted Big Three starting pitchers. Amend that. Sanchez just gave them a Big Enough Four. Almost surprisingly, considering he had a 3.48 road ERA this year and the Redbirds took two of three from the Nats in a regular season Busch set.

They also didn’t have to deal with the Nats’ fully-A lineup. Center fielder Victor Robles was still missing in action nursing a hamstring strain and catcher Kurt Suzuki was still under concussion protocol after taking one off his wrist into his face from Dodger pitcher Walker Buehler in Game Five of their division series.

And they couldn’t push Sanchez out of the game early enough to force the Nats into a Wander Suero option out of the bullpen, Suero occupying Hudson’s spot for the time being, knowing full well that Hudson, Doolittle, and maybe Fernando Rodney are the only three Nats bulls these days who don’t sink Washington’s antacid market.

But this was essentially the same Cardinals lineup that bastinadoed the Braves for ten first-inning runs two days earlier. The problem: they’re vulnerable to off speed stuff thrown by pitchers who know how to keep the stuff away from the middle of the plate. The only pitch Sanchez threw dead center busted up his no-hitter.

Even Max the Knife, Stras, and Prince Patrick should be making notes: don’t live on your fastballs with these Cardinals. And this is not the time to take the middle ground while you’re at it. Sanchez didn’t believe in the middle ground Friday night, and neither, really, did Doolittle, which is why Gomes had one more hit than the entire Cardinal lineup.

“Why any pitcher who can throw decent off speed stuff ever gives this team a fastball within the general vicinity of the strike zone is a mystery,” agrees St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Ben Frederickson. “The Cardinals’ inability to adapt on the fly resulted in their eleventh and most costly shutout of the season.”

Maybe the least surprised man in the house was Zimmerman, the Nats’ elder in the house. “Ever since Anibal came back from being injured, he’s been one of our most consistent, if not our most consistent, pitcher, which is hard to do with the other guys we have,” said the first baseman, referring to the hamstring issue he incurred in May.

“He doesn’t get overlooked but it’s such a different kind of pitching,” Zimmerman continued. “But tonight was obviously vintage Anibal. I’ve seen him do that for almost fifteen years but tonight was special.”

It may be just as special if not more so when Scherzer goes mano-a-mano with Adam Wainwright in Game Two Saturday. Even if Wainwright isn’t the pitcher he used to be thanks to too many injuries. Far as Wainwright’s concerned, getting to face Scherzer is an early Christmas present.

“We have similar games,” the Cardinals’ righthander said. “We’re both attacking with high-velocity fastballs at the top of the zone and nasty sliders and changeups.” Then, he paused thoughtfully. “I would have loved to have reinvented myself into Max Scherzer, that would have been amazing. It just didn’t work that way.”

It never does. There’s only one Max the Knife. And the Nats need him to slice, dice, and carve as deftly on Saturday as he did to the Dodgers in the division series.

With the sixth you get steamrolled

2019-10-06 PatrickCorbin

Patrick Corbin, the third man in the Nats’ starters-as-relievers plan, was the first and worst to be torched.

There is one bright side to the Nationals being bludgeoned 10-4 by the Dodgers Sunday night. It means they still have a shot in their National League division series. Because they’ll send Max Scherzer to the mound for Game Four. And all they need is Scherzer to be as close to Scherzer as possible.

If he is, the Nats have a fighting chance. And, Stephen Strasburg on regular rest for Game Five in Dodger Stadium. If he isn’t, they’ll look even more like baseball’s version of a Harold Stassen presidential campaign.

For the time being, though, they might want to can the starter-as-reliever strategy no matter how testy most of their bullpen is. They need Scherzer to pitch them as deep as possible without getting drowned. While praying manager Dave Martinez shakes Sunday off enough not to push anything resembling a panic button.

Certainly not the one he pushed Sunday afternoon, when he lifted his mostly cruising starter Anibal Sanchez after only 87 pitches, five innings, nine strikeouts (mostly on changeups, power worshippers), and a 2-1 lead, the last courtesy of Juan Soto’s monstrous two-run homer past the center field fence in the bottom of the first.

All of which followed Sanchez wriggling unscathed out of a ducks-on-the-pond first inning jam. If the only thing spoiling Sanchez’s gig was Max Muncy’s two-strike launch into the right center field bleachers with two out in the top of the fifth, surely Martinez could have kept Sanchez aboard for one more inning.

Well, maybe not. Whenever Sanchez gets a third crack at a lineup the other guys nail a .923 OPS against him. Maybe Martinez really didn’t have that much of a choice if he wanted to protect a 2-1 lead. Especially knowing his bullpen not named Daniel Hudson or Sean Doolittle were the second most self-immolating group in Washington aside from the federal government.

So Martinez reached for Corbin, the third man in his starter-as-reliever series plan. Maybe it was the right move, but there’s no maybe about how wrong the result ended up. Martinez surely thought the third verse would be the same as the first two.

Then he discovered an impostor in Corbin’s uniform.

Whoever was in Nats number 46 Sunday night, the Dodgers battered him for six runs in the top of the sixth and tied a postseason record with seven two-out runs total in the inning, keeping the Nats to only a two-runs-worth reply the rest of the way.

“Anibal was at 87 pitches. He gave us all he had,” said Martinez after the Nats were put out of their misery at last. “We were at a good spot in the lineup, where we thought Corbin could get through it. And his stuff was good . . . But he had every hitter 0-2. He just couldn’t finish.”

If the stuff was good, the command was hit by a mutiny. And then the Dodgers added insult to immolation when Russell Martin, who started the sixth-inning mischief with a two-run double bounding off the left center field fence, batted on 2-1 with David Freese on first in the top of the ninth and Hunter Strickland on the mound—and sent it into the seats above the left field bullpen.

The Nats must be wondering just what they ever did to Martin to make him treat them so disrespectfully. “You try to feast on mistakes,” Martin said after the game. “And he made a few mistakes.”

After actual or alleged Corbin knocked out two strikeouts following Cody Bellinger’s leadoff single, David Freese singled to right for first and third. And Martin on 2-2 sent a nice, low enough slider to the back of left center, leaving room to spare for Bellinger and Freese to come home. Corbin promptly walked pinch hitter Chris Taylor and the Dodgers knew this was an impostor. Enough for another pinch hitter, Enrique Hernandez, to lash a two-run double deep to left.

Feast on mistakes? To these Dodgers this Sunday night Corbin, or whoever snuck into his uniform, looked like a luau.

“That was one of those things,” Muncy said, “where once one guy started doing it, the next cat picked up on it and it just kind of rolled throughout the inning.” Steamrolled, that is.

Corbin didn’t flinch when a swarm of reporters crowded his locker after the game. “It just stinks,” he said in a voice so low, from so much pain, that you might have missed it unless you were in the front row of the swarm. “I feel like I let these guys down.”

The Nats put Muncy aboard on the house, a wise move considering he’d accounted for the first Dodger run in Sanchez’s final inning with a shot into the right center field bleachers. The wisdom lasted only long enough for Martinez to get the impostor out of there, get Wander Suero in, and and get another jolt when Justin Turner hit one into the left center field seats.

Of course, having nobody in the bullpen more reliable than Hudson and Doolittle complicates things. In a four-run hole the Nats weren’t about to burn either of those two. But bringing Strickland in to deal with the Dodgers in the ninth was almost like hiring Ma Barker to command the FBI. Martin’s launch off him was the ninth bomb Strickland’s surrendered in twelve lifetime postseason innings.

“[R]emember the crick that remains in your neck from watching the delicious meatballs Hunter Strickland has been serving up for weeks,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Barry Svrluga. “He is now a symbol of this battered bullpen and is slipping into ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ territory.”

“We just have to keep plugging away,” Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki told reporters after the game. “You definitely feel confident. You have the lead. You still have to finish it. That is a good lineup over there. They did their job tonight.”

Suzuki and his Nats need Scherzer to do as close to his normal job as possible Monday. And if they find a ransom demand for the real Patrick Corbin, pay it.