Nationals manager Davey Martinez had hoped he would be able to get seven innings out of his starter, Max Scherzer, in Monday’s Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers. If that could occur, he would then turn it over to Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson in the final two innings.
The scenario played out to an extent in Game 2. In that game, Stephen Strasburg finished six innings. Then, Martinez went to Doolittle, Scherzer and Hudson to get three innings and preserve the lead and the 4-2 win.
This time, Scherzer fought through seven innings, leaving the game with his team leading 6-1. Martinez brought in Doolittle to face mostly left-handers and his southpaw delivered four outs. Then to get hitters six and seven, he summoned Hudson.
The right-hander allowed an infield single to pinch-hitter David Freese but was able to strike out Gavin Lux and get Will Smith to fly out to right field to end the game. The Nats forced a Game 5 with a 6-1 victory.
Hudson’s focus was to try to get ahead in the count against each hitter he faced. He got 0-1 against Freese, 1-2 against Lux. Smith went after Hudson’s first pitch.
“I think it’s important, especially with that lineup, to try to get ahead,” Hudson said. “I know I didn’t do that fantastically to a couple guys in L.A. They are a really aggressive fastball-hitting team. So, to be able to put it in the right spots and get ahead with maybe some of your other stuff, be able to throw your other stuff in fastball counts, pitch backwards a little bit is really, really important. Just trying to do that as much as possible.”
Hudson now has a pair of quality ninth-inning appearances in the series. He has totaled two saves in three appearances in the postseason.
“He’s a veteran,” said Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki. “He’s been up for a long time now. He’s pitched in some big games. He’s closed games out. He’s pitched everywhere. He knows what it takes to get guys out. And the guy takes the ball no matter what. If you need him, he’s there. And that’s the mentality you need. It’s tough to get those last three outs.”
Doolittle was able to record four outs, three against left-handed hitters: Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager.
Muncy was the first batter he faced. Doolittle was looking for redemption after allowing a homer to Muncy in Los Angeles. He got it, but just barely, as Muncy drove a ball to deep center field that Michael A. Taylor caught for the first out of the eighth inning.
“I was ready. I’ve been thinking about it since the other night,” Doolittle said. (Kurt Suzuki), Yan (Gomes) and I we talked about maybe some different sequences. In that situation, I’m still going to challenge him and go right after him.
“I think I might have had a little bit of help there from Mother Nature. That’s just knowing your park. Mikey played it beautifully. If it was going to stay in, he was going to go get it. But with a five-run lead in that situation, you don’t want to give and you want to stay in attack mode.”
Suzuki agreed that the wind blowing into Nationals Park might have helped a bit with Muncy’s blast.
“I think we kicked up the wind a little bit,” Suzuki said. “He hit that ball pretty good. Kept it in the big part (of the ballpark), obviously. He’s a great hitter. They’re all great hitters. And (Doolittle) just tried to mix it up. You get lucky sometimes, and that’s part of the game. You just try to execute pitches, and it worked in our favor tonight.”
Doolittle appreciates his battles and respects Muncy’s ability. He and Muncy played together in Oakland in 2015 and 2016.
“We were teammates in Oakland for a couple years,” Doolittle said. “I was laughing because I saw the way Mikey was going back on the ball and I think (Muncy) caught my expression. I kind of breathed a sigh of relief and he looked at me and laughed. He got me the other night and maybe I got lucky this time, but if I face him again, I’ll be ready.
“I think part of playing in the postseason is being able to enjoy it and being able to have fun. What a cool opportunity we have right now. I was definitely having fun being out there with my teammates.”
Doolittle then was able to record outs against Justin Turner, who had homered in the first inning, and Bellinger. The left-hander was told that he would start the ninth because Seager was another lefty bat.
“Yeah, they let me know about that before I even hit the bottom step of the dugout,” Doolittle said. “They said ‘Don’t check out, stay locked in. You’re going to have Seager,’ so it ended up working out really well.”
The formula of Doolittle and Hudson in the late innings worked again for Martinez. You can expect that if the scenario plays itself out again Wednesday night in Game 5 at Dodger Stadium, he would go to the pair again. Hudson said that if that opportunity is there tomorrow, he will be ready.
“They didn’t tell us that was the plan, but obviously any time you can get the starter through seven innings makes it a little bit easier to shorten the game down there,” Hudson said. “It was awesome to watch. (Scherzer) did a hell of a job, especially in that last inning, battling through it. For him to get through seven innings like that was huge.”
Said Doolittle: “It’s tough man. Being down there in the bullpen, you know how quickly those games can change in one direction or the other. It feels like you are constantly on guard down there. You got to be ready from the middle innings through the back half of the game. Mentally staying locked in like that, it’s an emotional roller coaster being down there.
“It’s fun, man. I think if you look at it, like, what a cool opportunity we have right now to knock off the Dodgers, go to back to Game 5, win Game 5 on the road, man. Our crowd tonight was awesome. So, if you look at it that way, you can have a little bit more fun with it. We embraced it tonight.”
Now do that thing you do one more time and the Nats will accomplish something they have never been able to enjoy in their short history in D.C.