Bullpen duo has become strength, not weak link, for Nats

ST. LOUIS - The weak link of the Nationals roster, it is well known, is a bullpen that ranked among the majors' worst all season and simply cannot be trusted to close out games.

Except that's not entirely true.

The weak link of the Nationals roster is the rank-and-file portion of the bullpen, the guys who pitch the sixth and seventh innings, or the guys who have to fill in later when the main arms are unavailable.

In the postseason, that portion of the bullpen has barely seen action. Certainly not when the Nationals are in position to win a game.

Truth be told, the back end of the Nats relief corps is far from a weak link. It's a major strength. Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson have been lights-out over the last 12 days, playing a major role in helping their team go 6-2 in October and take a commanding 2-0 lead over the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

And they've reached a point where neither has to be designated the team's sole closer.

"Dual closers, yeah," manager Davey Martinez said. "With (Doolittle) and Huddie in the eighth and ninth - and maybe in the seventh - I feel like we got a nice stopgap there."

How nice? Well, combined those two have pitched 10 innings this postseason, allowing two runs on seven hits, with two walks and 10 strikeouts. They're 4-for-4 in save opportunities.

Doolittle and Hudson have only appeared in postseason wins to date. That has made them a critical part of the Nationals' overall October plan to get everything they can out of their four starters and top two relievers.

Hudson-Throws-Blue-NLCS-Sidebar.jpgHere's the evidence: In their six postseason wins, the Nats' four starters (Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez) and top two relievers (Doolittle, Hudson) have combined to record all but two outs. (The man responsible for the other two outs: Tanner Rainey, who retired both batters he faced in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the NL Division Series at Dodger Stadium.)

Three of the starters have pitched in relief: Scherzer and Strasburg once a piece, Corbin three times including his one-batter appearance Saturday in Game 2 of the NLCS. But the load is falling more on Doolittle and Hudson now, with starters less capable of making relief appearances in between their regular outings.

"In the five-game series, you've got to get creative and you've got to take the ball at every single chance you can get," Scherzer said. "In the seven-game series, the way you're set up, this is more like the regular season. You can't be coming out of the 'pen in the same form or fashion, unless you're not going to be making your start."

So the pressure's on Doolittle and Hudson, but they've been up to the challenge so far.

Doolittle, after getting a break late in the summer to rest his fatigued arm, didn't exactly enter the postseason in peak form. But he has looked very much his old self in his five outings this month, with a fastball topping out at 95 mph and hitting the top of the strike zone as he wants.

"I'm feeling pretty good," the left-hander said. "I think (in Game 2), the last couple days kind of caught up with me. I didn't quite have the zip on it. But I thought for the most part I moved it around."

Despite his summer struggles, the Nationals weren't overly worried about Doolittle's ability to return to form once he got a chance to recharge his batteries.

"We knew Doo was going to get back to what he was doing before," Hudson said. "He got killed early, man. He was gassed. You could see it in his body. And when he came off the IL, he kind of had a different life to him. Especially from when I got here til then. You knew he was going to come back, and come back strong. He's a pro, man. He's done it for so long. And he's pitched the ninth inning for a long time. He knows how to get it done."

Hudson, meanwhile, hasn't given up a run in five postseason appearances. This after nine consecutive scoreless appearances down the stretch in September. Put that all together and he hasn't allowed a run in his last 14 1/3 innings.

He's also 8-for-8 in save opportunities during this extended run of dominance. Not bad for a guy who upon his acquisition from the Blue Jays on July 31 was expected to be a fireman who entered to get out of jams and never figured he'd wind up closing games in October.

"I didn't know really what to expect, to be honest with you," Hudson said. "Doo needing the break and going down with the little knee thing, and I think that Davey just kind of did the same thing: Tried to ride the hot hand. And I just tried to keep the seat warm for him until he got back."

Now that they're both healthy and productive, it doesn't much matter who holds what role. These two guys are more than willing to do whatever is asked of them to help finish off what the Nationals' elite rotation is starting.

"It becomes a countdown of outs," Doolittle said. "Today, once Max leaves the game, don't think about it any other way: We've got to get six outs. We've got to find a way to get six outs. Yesterday, we had to find a way to get four outs. And that kind of takes some of the context away. You kind of put your blinders on, keep your head down and simplify things and just go to work."

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