Dave Martinez didn’t exactly shower Aníbal Sánchez with praise when he penciled the 35-year-old into the starter’s spot and his postseason series early Sunday morning in Washington (35 doesn’t seem that old until you realize that 2001, the year in which Martinez made his last major-league plate appearance, was the same year in which Sánchez signed as an international free agent with the Red Sox). When pressed on the choice — between Sánchez, who hadn’t pitched in 10 days, and Wild Card starter Max Scherzer on two days rest (he threw in relief in Game 2 Friday) — Martinez was brief. “I’ve asked a lot of guys to hold off on their bullpens,” he said.
But Sánchez, the part of this game that wasn’t supposed to go well for the Nationals, acquitted himself admirably over five innings and 87 pitches of work. The first inning was dicey, with two walks and a single sandwiched around a foulout to right by Max Muncy and a swinging strikeout by Cody Bellinger. But Sánchez found control of his soft changeup late in the Bellinger sequence, and used it to great effect against Pollock with the bases loaded. 71 mph up and in with the bases juiced, just like they drew it up. Pollock struck out, and so did the next four Dodgers hitters.
In the meantime Juan Soto, in his first at-bat in the nation’s capital since that liner to right last Tuesday that will sit uneasily in the memories of Wisconsinites, took a Hyun-Jin Ryu fastball that caught altogether too much of the plate out of the ballpark to center. That put the Nats up 2-0, and caused me to contemplate for the first time what it might mean to a generation of fans to have the Nationals advance beyond the Division Series for the first time in their history.
It’s all too easy to pretend — especially in light of a few empty Delta-branded seats in the front rows tonight — that Nats Park is populated exclusively by lobbyists content to shell out $1,500 for the privilege of kibbitzing with Mr. and Mrs. John Q. K. Street for a few hours, that the franchise lacks supporters who might feel real heartbreak at the thought of a fifth flameout in eight years, or experience real joy at the thought of progress for the first time in forever. But that cruel thought discounts too much what 15 years of attachment must feel like, 15 years of baseball on the TV year over year in the summer’s evening light, and five Octobers of disappointment. As Soto lifted his head and circled the bases, I thought about those summers.
Dave Martinez thought about Aníbal Sánchez. The third and fourth innings passed for the Nationals with just two Dodger baserunners to darken them, and in the fourth it looked for a moment — with Soto on first base and Anthony Rendon on second with nobody out — as if the D.C. lead might become just comfortable enough for Sánchez to stretch his unexpected success into an unexpected sixth inning. But three quick outs ended those hopes in the fourth, and then in the fifth, the temptation to bring Michael A. Taylor, aboard with a single, home for a third run led Martinez to pull his starter for pinch hitter Ryan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman grounded out to first after replacing Sánchez, and the Nationals failed to score in the fifth. That’s when the trouble really began. Replacing Sánchez when he did, given his horrendous numbers the third time through the order and the opportunity to pad Washington’s one-run lead, seems entirely defensible. So too, I think, was sending Patrick Corbin out to pitch the sixth. Corbin started Game 1 of the series for the Nationals, of course, and he hadn’t come in in relief — not even once — since 2017. But the Nationals bullpen has been an absolute garbage fire this entire season (their 4.94 FIP was the worst among this year’s playoff teams by more than half a run), and so going to a starter as a reliever was really Martinez’s only move in the situation, given the hand dealt to him. He was even thoughtful enough to double-switch in Yan Gomes to block those tricky balls down in the dirt.
And for a few minutes, it seemed as if it might work. Bellinger led off with a single, but Corbin made effective use of his slider down and away to strike out Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock in turn, keeping Bellinger planted firmly on first base.
When the story of this National Division Series is eventually written, much will be made of the Russell Martin double that put the Dodgers ahead and started the onslaught that would end twenty minutes and five additional runs later with Los Angeles up 8-3. It was an impressive hit — Martin had struck out in each of his two previous at-bats, looking bad doing it. But to my mind, the key hit was David Freese’s the moment just before Martin, staying back on a two-strike, four-seam fastball from Corbin and taking it to right, just where it needed to be to put Bellinger on third and set the tone for the bloodbath to follow.
Our old friend Eno Sarris has written extensively about how Freese and Bellinger have both found substantial success on inside pitches this year by intentionally backing off of the plate. That approach paid off big-time for Freese and the Dodgers in the sixth inning Sunday night, as he found — and not for the first time — that postseason heroism lies in the green grass of right field.
We might still be discussing a different game had Corbin wrapped up the inning with a one-run deficit after the Martin double. But after getting Enrique Hernández to a quick 0-2 count with two good fastballs at 93, Corbin left a slider a little bit too high, a little bit too flat, and Hernández placed the pitch in the left-center gap, with prejudice. 5-2. Wander Suero came in to try to stop the bleeding shortly afterward, but the game was already lost. Justin Turner’s three-run home run, which came — again! — with two strikes, made the eventual result all but certain:
The Nats made a run at a comeback in the bottom of the inning, scoring once and loading the bases with nobody out for Asdrúbal Cabrera, but a howler of a Howie Kendrick TOOTBLAN — frankly inexcusable given the context — turned a groundball into a double play and put paid to that rally. Then, in the ninth, with a chance to send his team to the bottom of the inning with just four runs to make up, Martinez made the somewhat odd choice to pitch Hunter Strickland, a man who as made a career of allowing postseason home runs (eight in just 12 postseason innings coming into the game!) and who lived up to his reputation in style by allowing a Martin dinger, making the score 10-4 and putting the game out of reach. That home run, incidentally, gave Martin his first two-extra-base hit game for the Dodgers in a decade (per Bill Plunkett).
Max Scherzer will, in all likelihood, start tonight’s Game 4 in Washington, and Stephen Strasburg is pencilled in for a potential Game 5 back in LA. The dream is far from dead for the Nationals, and there’s no real reason it should be. Baseball is built on hope, and we would be entirely lost without it. But that hope would have been a lot easier to find had Patrick Corbin found a way to get a third strike over on a Dodger either of two times in the middle of the sixth, or Wander Suero just once a little later. Aníbal Sánchez, who was supposed to be a doormat for DC, ended up being the hinge instead. But the Washington bullpen — even in the guise of a starter, even in a game it wanted more than anything to win — couldn’t get it done yet again, and the door swung a little farther closed for a team that still hasn’t found a way to walk through to the Championship Series in its 15 years at home on the Anacostia.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.