Nats' biggest names embracing expanded roles in October

LOS ANGELES - The Nationals have pitched 26 innings of postseason baseball so far this week, all of them high-stress, high-stakes innings, with one game officially must-win and another game ostensibly must-win.

Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin have pitched 21 of those 26 innings. Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle have pitched another three.

That's 24 of 26 innings, a staggering 92.3 percent, manned by those five key members of the staff, the five best members of the staff.

"I think it says a lot about the importance of the game, that guys are willing to embrace any role or maybe do things a little bit differently than what happens during the season," Doolittle said. "This is a really, really selfless group. I think you've seen it all along with these guys."

It's what many believe makes this Nationals team different from any other that preceded it. Yes, they've used a starter in relief before. Davey Johnson had Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson each throw an inning out of the 'pen in 2012. And Dusty Baker sent Scherzer to the mound for what proved to be a fateful fifth inning in Game 5 of the 2017 National League Division Series.

But what we've seen over the last week is different. Because this isn't just one instance with one guy pitching one inning. This is multiple guys doing whatever is asked of them, or even offering to do it before being asked. And these aren't just any pitchers doing it. They're some of the biggest names and best-paid pitchers in baseball.

Scherzer-Delivers-Blue-NLDS-LA-Sidebar.jpg"It's awesome," Hudson said. "It's all hands on deck. Everybody's up for whatever. Stephen going out in the wild card game and throwing three shutdown innings. Max coming out there and doing what he did (in Game 2 of the NLDS). We'll see what the plan is the rest of the way. I know we have all the confidence in all the guys down there that they're going to get the job done. But to have those extra guys come down there and be a reinforcement for us is awesome."

Where does all of this leave the Nationals heading into Game 3 on Sunday night? They weren't entirely sure as they packed up and left Dodger Stadium late Friday night.

Manager Davey Martinez named Scherzer his Game 3 starter earlier in the afternoon, but that was before the three-time Cy Young Award winner came in to strike out the side in the bottom of the eighth to preserve a 4-2 lead.

"We'll see," Martinez said. "I talked to him now. I'm going to see how he feels tomorrow. I want to make sure he gets a night (to recover and reevaluate). He's working out right now, and we'll see how he feels tomorrow."

At this point, the Nationals know this series is going at least four games. And Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez will start Games 3 and 4. It's just a matter of in what order. Perhaps they decide Scherzer could use the extra day of rest and Sánchez, who hasn't pitched in 10 days now, is more than capable of moving up a day to start.

"Honestly, it doesn't matter," Scherzer said. "For me, you bring it whenever you're told to bring it. This is the playoffs. You lay it on the line every single time you touch the field. Whenever I get the ball next, I get the ball and just lay it on the line."

Whatever the case, you can bet Martinez will have some more tricks up his sleeve. He let everyone know in advance that Strasburg and Corbin would be available out of the bullpen for the wild card game. He didn't let anyone but the essential personnel know Scherzer would be available out of the bullpen for Game 2 on Friday night.

Can they sustain this through the rest of the NLDS and, should they advance, the NLCS and beyond? It would be an awfully big ask of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin to pitch out of the bullpen between their regularly scheduled starts.

Then again, each of these guys has spent a lifetime hoping to get to this point, pitching in the postseason for a team with the loftiest of aspirations. If ever they were going to be willing to do something extraordinary, this is it.

"I'm very routine-oriented, and I would say my younger self would be a little bit alarmed by it," Strasburg said. "But now it's kind of, at this point in my career ... it's just another challenge."

The 2019 Nationals have been defined by their resilience, by their willingness to do whatever was needed to overcome a bad opening two months and a bad bullpen. Now, as they've reached the most important time of the year, they're taking it to another level, all in the hopes of helping do their part to lead this team to a place it's never been before.

"Each year that you get into your career, you realize how special an opportunity it is to play in the postseason," Doolittle said. "You maybe feel that window closing a little bit, or you start to really appreciate these opportunities. These guys want to capitalize.

"We realize we have something special going on here. Guys are willing to do whatever it takes to give us the best chance. It's so much fun to be a part of a team like that when you have guys willing to embrace any role and help in any way that's asked of them. It creates really, really good clubhouse chemistry."

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