CHICAGO - Tempting as it is to just hand the final three innings of a ballgame over to his new trio of experienced relievers, Dusty Baker also knows he can’t overdo it on Aug. 4, in the first game of a weekend series against the defending World Series champs, with two fill-in starters taking the mound the next two afternoons.
So Baker didn’t hesitate to send Tanner Roark back to the mound for the bottom of the seventh today at Wrigley Field, with his Nationals leading the Cubs by three runs and his starter’s pitch count at 97.
“He was dealing,” the manager said. “We were watching him, particularly in that seventh because he had 100 pitches. But that’s nothing for Tanner. He’s a workhorse.”
Roark, though, quickly made this game more interesting than it was. Kyle Schwarber led off the seventh with a double, then two batters later Javier Báez crushed a hanging slider into the left field bleachers, and now this was a one-run game.
And so Baker made the walk to the mound, signaling in the vicinity of the newly installed, invisible to the public bullpen underneath the famed Wrigley bleachers. In trotted Brandon Kintzler. And down went the Cubs’ chances of a comeback.
With two outs from Kintzler in the seventh, three outs from Ryan Madson in the eighth and three outs from Sean Doolittle in the ninth, the Nationals rode their new-look relief corps to an impressive 4-2 victory, deploying a pitching formula that may very well become the norm over the season’s final two months and beyond.
“It was time to get (Roark) out of there and turn it over to our newly revamped bullpen,” Baker said. “You feel very comfortable putting those guys in the game, because you know they’ve been in that situation many times and they feel very comfortable in those situations.”
They certainly are pitching like it so far.
Kintzler, acquired Monday from the Twins, issued a walk but then got two ground balls to end the seventh and protect what at that point was a one-run lead. The right-hander has now faced seven batters as a National, retired six of them and thrown 27-of-37 pitches for strikes.
Madson, acquired three weeks ago from the Athletics, got two quick outs in the eighth, then watched as an errant pitch struck Ben Zobrist in the foot, then blew away Schwarber with three high fastballs. The veteran has now pitched six scoreless innings in a Nationals uniform, allowing only five batters to reach base and striking out nine.
Doolittle, acquired in the same trade as Madson, gave up a leadoff single to Jason Heyward in the ninth but then struck out Báez on three pitches and on his very next offering got Ian Happ to ground into a game-ending, 5-4-3 double play. That makes the lefty 5-for-5 in save opportunities since coming to Washington, this latest one achieved on a total of six pitches.
Suffice it to say, there’s a different vibe these days when the Nationals hold a late lead.
“It seems like each one of them has a really good idea of what their strengths are, and then coupling those strengths to try to attack hitters the most optimal way,” said Daniel Murphy, whose two homers accounted for three-fourths of the Nationals offense. “Kintzler today got two ground balls. Madson has that live fastball. And then Doolittle comes in and has got that skipping fastball as well. It seems like each guy has a great understanding of who they are.”
Maybe the most impressive aspect of today’s collective relief performance: Six of the 10 plate appearances those three pitchers faced came with the game on the line, where one swing of the bat could tie things up. They retired the batter in five of those plate appearances, with Kintzler’s leadoff walk of Happ in the seventh the lone blemish.
“They threw strikes,” Baker said. “Quality strikes.”
The biggest encounter might well have been that between Madson and Schwarber, who stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth representing the tying run and having just ripped a double to right-center in the seventh.
Oliver Pérez was warming in the ‘pen, but Baker entrusted the at-bat to Madson and was rewarded for it. Madson got Schwarber to swing through a high fastball for strike one, then kept climbing the ladder and kept getting the big lefty masher to swing and miss.
It wasn’t necessarily Madson’s plan going in to do that, but he quickly read Schwarber’s uncontrolled swing and took advantage of it.
“I just go out there, and get a feel and go with what’s working today,” he said.
It all worked today, and in the process Nationals fans got a taste of what they might see plenty more times this fall: Kintzler to Madson to Doolittle.
“Not necessarily in that order,” Baker cautioned. “But all three of those guys, they’ve been in the back end of bullpens and they know what to do. They’re pretty good both against right and left, which makes it nice. We’ll just have to see as we go on.”