Is it time to use top relievers even when trailing late?

MINNEAPOLIS - It may not have mattered in the end, because the Nationals still needed to score if they were going to win Tuesday night’s game, and they never did.

Nonetheless, Davey Martinez’s bullpen usage in the bottom of the eighth of what wound up a 5-0 loss to the Twins merits a closer look, and a thorough explanation from the manager, because it left more than a few people asking questions.

The situation: The Nationals trailed the Twins 2-0, with both runs having scored on Mitch Garver’s homer off Aníbal Sánchez in the bottom of the seventh. They had gone down quietly in the top of the eighth, so now it was the job of a member of the bullpen to keep the deficit at 2-0 and at least give a lineup that leads the majors with 83 ninth-inning runs a chance to come back in the ninth.

The member of the bullpen Martinez chose to face Minnesota’s 9-1-2 hitters was Tanner Rainey.

“I like Rainey with the (velocity) with those guys,” Martinez explained. “We talked about it before with (Jonathan) Schoop and those guys: I like Rainey with the velo and slider with the bottom and two top guys.”

Rainey, however, proceeded to plunk Schoop, then allowed a single to Luis Arraez, then uncorked a wild pitch, then surrendered a two-run double to Jorge Polanco. All of a sudden, that 2-0 deficit was 4-0. And by the time the inning ended, with Javy Guerra allowing an inherited runner to score via a sacrifice fly, it was 5-0.

Yes, the Nationals already trailed when Rainey entered. But he didn’t view that appearance as any less significant than one in which his team was ahead late.

“It’s as big as any other inning,” he said. “You give your team a chance to score two runs in the ninth to tie it up as opposed to five, that’s a big difference. Two runs is one swing of the bat.”

Strickland-Fires-at-ARI-Gray-Sidebar.jpgIt’s not uncommon for Martinez to turn to Rainey or another member of his second half of his bullpen when trailing late. But this particular situation did seem to call for a more accomplished arm. Why not use Hunter Strickland (who warmed up in the seventh when the game was still scoreless) or Daniel Hudson or Wander Suero or Fernando Rodney or even Sean Doolittle in an attempt to keep the deficit at two runs?

According to Martinez, the issue was the amount of work some of those pitchers had undertaken over the weekend in Atlanta.

“I know we had a day off yesterday,” the manager said. “The games in Atlanta were close. Hudson was (warming) up every game. Suero was used. Strickland, I got him up (in the seventh Tuesday night) just to get out of the inning, but he’s a guy we’ve got to really be careful with.

“These other guys, they’ve got to pitch. They have to do their job. We need them all right now. If it’s a tie or something, it’s different.”

Therein lies the quandary. If the game is tied, Martinez is saying he’s more willing to use a top reliever even if he has worked a lot in recent days. But when trailing, even if by only two runs, he’s not willing to push a pitcher to that extent.

It’s a perfectly reasonable argument, especially through the vast majority of the season. The question is whether that philosophy needs to change at all in these final weeks of a pennant race. Even down 2-0, is it worth it to use a better reliever in an attempt to keep the deficit right there than trust a lesser one to get the job done?

As the wild card race gets tighter and the schedule gets shorter, that’s a question Martinez may have no choice but to confront soon.

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