DENVER - The Nationals seemed determined to make the four early runs they scored tonight hold up through an entire ballgame. At Coors Field. With the majors’ least effective bullpen.
A bold strategy, to say the least. And yet somehow they pulled it off. (With a little help from two long-awaited insurance runs via ineffective relief from the opposition.)
Behind three scoreless innings from four relievers - some of them used in unfamiliar fashion - the Nationals survived the harrowing late innings in the mile-high air and emerged with a 6-3 victory over the Rockies that felt as satisfying as any of their previous 10 victories this young season.
“It’s definitely not easy pitching here, the elevation and the fact the ball doesn’t move,” said Joe Ross, who recorded one of the key final nine outs. “But we’ve all got to do it. They’ve got to do it. We’ve got to do it. So you just have to find a way to get the outs and execute the pitches.”
Credit manager Davey Martinez, whose bullpen decisions often raise eyebrows but must be considered amid the context of what he has to work with. Martinez had to piece it together in an unconventional manner tonight, and he was successful.
Before anything else, Martinez got what he needed out of Patrick Corbin, who went six innings allowing three runs (two earned). But with his lineup unable to tack on insurance runs for the second straight night, Martinez was left to entrust the final nine outs to his bullpen with zero margin for error.
First up was Ross, the converted starter who has pitched well in two relief appearances so far and prompted his manager to say earlier today he was ready to try him in a high-leverage spot. Ross got thrown right into one, but he got to face only one batter: catcher Drew Butera, who grounded out on two pitches.
Next up was Tony Sipp, inserted to face a pair of left-handed batters. And Sipp delivered, striking out David Dahl and getting Charlie Blackmon to ground out to end the seventh with the 4-3 lead intact.
Wander Suero was given the eighth inning, and though the frame began with a hustle double from Trevor Story, Suero bounced back big-time to get Nolan Arenado to ground out before striking out Mark Reynolds on three pitches.
And then Martinez made his final, calculated move: Bringing in his closer for the biggest spot of the game, even though it wasn’t yet the ninth inning. Sean Doolittle was summoned to face the left-handed Ryan McMahon, and the closer responded by striking him out on three pitches to set the stage for the ninth.
“For me today, that was a big moment,” Martinez said. “We’ve got two outs. We were hoping to get two outs, and if McMahon was up, that was Doo’s spot. We called down there. We asked if he could get four outs, and he said yes right away. It was a big moment of the game.”
The Nationals lineup did finally provide the bullpen with some cushion, though it came in painful fashion. With the bases loaded in the top of the ninth, Juan Soto fouled a 3-1 pitch off the top of his right foot and went down to the ground for several minutes. He eventually finished the at-bat and drew a walk to force home an insurance run. And when Howie Kendrick was plunked moments later, another run came home and Doolittle suddenly had a 6-3 lead at his disposal, which he held with little trouble.
“Whether you’re coming and you’re trying to nail down a four-out save, or there’s no outs, one out in the eighth ... the first batter is so key,” said Doolittle, who now has recorded more than three outs three times this season. “Because whatever happens with that can change the momentum of the rest of the game and the rest of your outing.”
Just as they did in Monday’s opener, the Nationals got on the board early with a crooked number. This time it happened in the top of the third, with Victor Robles delivering the big blow. Robles’ bases-loaded double to deep center brought all three runners around to score and gave the Nats the lead.
Robles, though, wasn’t content enough with three RBIs. He then swiped third base, albeit with an awkward slide, and that put him in position to score on Kendrick’s sacrifice fly, completing a four-run rally.
“I was able to pick off the sign from the catcher, and read that it was going to be a breaking pitch,” Robles said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “So I decided to go. I got a good jump on the pitch.”
Alas, just as was the case Monday, the Nationals tried to make those early runs hold up. They couldn’t push across anything else against the Rockies bullpen until the top of the ninth, adding even more pressure to their pitching staff.
Corbin did his part. The lefty surrendered an early homer to Raimel Tapia (the previously unknown Colorado outfielder’s second in as many at-bats) but then settled into a groove and pitched effectively despite the thin air.
The biggest at-bat of Corbin’s start came in the fifth, when Arenado stepped to the plate with two on and two out. As the crowd urged the star slugger on, Corbin got what he wanted: a grounder to short. But Wilmer Difo, trying to make the play a few steps to his left, booted the ball and an unearned run scored.
Corbin survived the inning without suffering anymore damage, but his workload was higher than it needed to be. And so after a 1-2-3 bottom of the sixth, he was done with a pitch count of 103.
“His pitch count was getting up there, but he went back out there and finished that sixth inning,” Doolittle said. “That was huge for us. As a bullpen, as a team, we really, really needed a start like that to bounce back after yesterday’s loss.”
And, of course, they needed the bullpen to hold a one-run lead. In this ballpark.
Bold strategy. But it worked.