TINSMAN: Nats' use of aces in relief backfires, big time

Brian Tinsman
October 07, 2019 - 1:21 am
Nats' use of aces in relief backfires, big time

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

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Aces were wild at Nats Park on Sunday night.

The Washington Nationals entered October with the second-worst bullpen in baseball and a manager in Dave Martinez who was ready to try an innovative approach.

If starting pitchers typically throw a practice inning between starts anyway, why not have your trio of aces operate as relief pitchers on those days? In theory, this maximizes the talent that each brings to the table and helps support a bullpen that struggles to get outs.

The move was brilliant through the first three games of the playoffs, as Stephen Strasburg relieved Max Scherzer in the Wild Card game, and Scherzer returned the favor for Strasburg in Game 2 of the NLDS.

Both pitchers hung zeroes in their relief innings and the Nats came away with a pair of victories. More importantly, it had no noticeable effect on their performances in the next start.

Anibal Sanchez started Game 3, pitching five innings of one-run ball and leaving with the lead. Rested ace Patrick Corbin entered in relief in the sixth inning. That's when the wheels came off.

The Dodgers batted around as Corbin got shelled and left with the Nats trailing 5-2. He was replaced by Wander Suero, who allowed all inherited runners to score and then some. When the inning was finally over, so were the Nats' chances.

Instead of fixing the problems with the bullpen, Corbin became the problem. But why? Corbin was a splashy addition last offseason and had one of the best seasons of his career.

Some of it was just bad luck. 

According to MLB Stats, all of the Dodgers' seven runs scored in the sixth came with two-strike counts and two outs in the inning. No team had ever done that in a postseason inning because that's a highly improbable feat.

Some of it was getting away from his routine. 

Corbin hasn't pitched in relief since 2017 and has done so only 18 times in his seven-year career. It's a different process for preparation and it's a very different mentality than starting.

In the aftermath, Corbin sat alone on the dugout bench with his head in his hands. Several innings later, he was shown staring off into the abyss. It was not the body language of somebody excited to make his next start.

If Corbin can't turn the page on this relief appearance, then the Nats have no one to blame but themselves.

Shuffling his aces through the bullpen was an innovative idea by Martinez, but it was hardly sustainable through a prolonged playoff push. Pitchers who throw in the upper 90s and 100-plus pitches need a full term of rest between starts.

Now the Nats are on the brink of elimination and will be forced to win twice in a row. That starts with Scherzer on Monday, who will likely not have a backup ace in the bullpen. If they win, either Corbin or Strasburg could start Game 5.

After such a colossal meltdown, it will be interesting to see how Martinez handles his bullpen. Look for everyone to have a short leash.

Brian Tinsman has covered D.C. sports since 2011, both from the team marketing and skeptical fan perspectives. Tweet your criticisms @Brian_Tinsman.