There was a point during Tuesday night’s wild card game, around the third inning or so, when it looked like Davey Martinez’s postseason managerial debut was going to be remembered for the wrong reason.
With Max Scherzer digging the Nationals into a 3-0 hole after serving up a pair of quick homers and the Brewers all set up to use their pitching staff exactly as they planned, Martinez’s decision not only to start Scherzer in this game but to then let him bat for himself and continue pitching loomed as a potential season-ender for his team.
By night’s end, of course, the Nats would be celebrating a 4-3 victory in front of a joyous crowd of 42,993. And while the players themselves delivered in key moments to make that happen, Martinez’s decisions along the way to put them in position to deliver proved just as important.
Think not only about the moves that were made, but those that were not made along the way to make victory possible. And it starts with the decision to leave Scherzer in.
To be sure, the staff ace did not pitch well. He was over-amped in the top of the first, pumping out 99 mph fastballs but unable to command them. He walked Trent Grisham to open the game, then served up Yasmani Grandal’s homer, then one inning later served up Eric Thames’ homer.
But then came a 10-pitch top of the third, and with Scherzer due to bat in the bottom of the inning, Martinez now faced the critical decision: Send up a pinch-hitter and trust the rest of this game to a bullpen that included Stephen Strasburg, or let him bat and hope he could churn out a couple more scoreless innings.
“We thought about (pulling him), but the thing is to try to get Stras through the later innings, as well,” Martinez explained. “Scherzer settled down after the first two innings. He was dynamite. We rode him as long as we could.”
Nobody would have questioned the move had Strasburg taken over for Scherzer in the top of the fourth. But as Martinez pointed out, that probably would have required someone else to pitch at some point later in the game. Strasburg would end up going three innings. The fact that those innings were the sixth, seventh and eighth instead of the fourth, fifth and sixth proved critical.
No less critical was Martinez’s usage of his bench in the later innings. The Nationals had an expanded group of available position players for this game, eight reserves in total, and everyone was included for a specific reason. Martinez utilized them exceptionally well.
With the Brewers throwing three consecutive left-handers out of their bullpen, Martinez had to pick the right spots for his three right-handed bench bats: Ryan Zimmerman, Brian Dozier and Michael A. Taylor.
Twice, Zimmerman stood in the on-deck circle to pinch-hit for the pitcher’s spot (for Scherzer in the fifth and Strasburg in the eighth). But in each case, he was pulled back in favor of one of the other guys because of what happened to the batter in front of him.
Dozier would end up batting in the fifth, with two outs and a man on first. He ripped a 101 mph laser to third base, where Mike Moustakas made a sprawling grab but then threw wide of first base for an error.
The Nationals wouldn’t score, but they would in the bottom of the eighth. That inning began with Victor Robles striking out against Josh Hader, as Zimmerman again stood in the on-deck circle. Had Robles reached, Zimmerman would have hit with a chance to tie the game. But because Robles didn’t reach, Martinez pulled his veteran back again and sent up Taylor instead to try to get on base.
Taylor managed to do it, taking a 3-2 fastball off his left hand (and the knob of his bat) and was awarded first base. Trea Turner then struck out, but now Zimmerman finally got his chance, pinch-hitting not for a pitcher but for Adam Eaton (who would have been a particularly bad matchup vs. Hader).
Zimmerman, of course, would have his bat shattered but would still get enough muscle on the ball to coax it into shallow center field for a two-out single. Martinez would then send Andrew Stevenson out to pinch-run for him, precisely the reason Stevenson was on the roster to begin with.
Stevenson nearly committed a huge mistake: With the count 3-2 on Anthony Rendon, he didn’t break on Hader’s pitch. Had Rendon driven a ball to the gap, Stevenson’s sure tying run might not have scored. But it didn’t matter because Hader’s pitch to Rendon was high, and so now the bases were loaded for Juan Soto.
You know what happened next. It’s the reason the Nationals are currently en route to Los Angeles for Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday night.
A lot of people were responsible for making this trip possible. High atop that list is the manager.