HOUSTON - When they take the field tonight for the first time as World Series participants, once the players have been introduced, once the anthem has been sung, once the ceremonial first pitch has been thrown, the Nationals will embark on their 11th game of this postseason.
They’ll do with Max Scherzer on the mound for the fifth time, fourth as a starter. There’s a decent chance they’ll be summoning Patrick Corbin out of the bullpen for the fourth time, to go along with two starts.
To reach late October for the first time in franchise history, the Nationals needed to ask more of their players, especially veterans, than they ever have. And to beat the powerhouse Astros and emerge with the Commissioner’s Trophy, they’re going to need to keep getting that kind of above-and-beyond contribution for another week to 10 days.
These players wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We just want to win here, really, this whole team,” Corbin said. “I think that’s pretty special. It shows how close we are as a group. No one’s jealous of anybody’s success. I think that’s why we’re here.”
The manner in which the Nationals went 74-38 over the season’s final four months, impressive as it was, bears only slight resemblance to the manner in which they’ve gone 8-2 in October to capture their first pennant and reach the World Series.
As much as they talk about needing to get contributions from all 25 guys on the roster, that really hasn’t been the case in the postseason. Sixty-seven percent of their plate appearances (247 of 371) have come from six regular members of the lineup: Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Kendrick and Zimmerman. Ninety percent of their total innings (81 of 90) have been thrown by six pitchers: Stephen Strasburg, Aníbal Sánchez, Scherzer, Corbin, Doolittle and Hudson.
That’s 12 of the 25 players on the roster doing the vast majority of the heavy lifting, which helps explain how the Nationals have made it this far. Their depth (especially in the bullpen) may not compare to other elite teams, but their star power filling up the top half of the roster is as good as or better than anybody else in baseball.
Which is why those in uniform are shrugging their shoulders at those who have declared the Astros heavy favorites to win the World Series.
“We have a great pitching staff,” Turner said. “We have a great lineup. We have a great bullpen. We’re deep. We compete. And for me, anybody can win a seven-game series. We’re going to have to play good baseball. We have a great opponent in the Astros. But I don’t care who’s the favorite, who does what. What matters is who plays well out there.”
With the second-best rotation (3.53 ERA) but worst bullpen (5.66 ERA) in the majors during the regular season, manager Davey Martinez knew his best - only? - hope for October success was to maximize the usage of his starters so he could then minimize the usage of his relievers. The Nationals have done just that, not only getting more than six innings per game out of their starters but also using Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin out of the bullpen five times in 10 games to help bridge the gap to their top two relievers.
“Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do,” pitching coach Paul Menhart said. “Davey’s done a great job of putting guys in a place where it’s a little bit surprising, and maybe catch the other team off guard on occasion. We’ll see what happens this series.”
Don’t be surprised if they try to pull this trick off again. Martinez hasn’t named a Game 3 starter yet, in large part because he’s waiting to see if he needs to use Corbin in relief in Game 1 or 2.
“We’ll play it by ear and see what happens,” Corbin said. “It all depends on situations, what happens in Game 1 or 2. But for me, I just try to be ready. And if they need me, I’ll be ready to go.”
Despite the extra workload, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin have physically held up quite well. That doesn’t surprise their pitching coach as much as the number of times they’ve been able to answer the ball when summoned.
“I’ve been extremely amazed,” Menhart said. “Not that they could do it. But that they were willing to do it. There were times when I didn’t think there was a chance they’d say they felt good enough to do it. And they’re like: ‘Nope, I’m good. If you need me, I got it.’”
These aren’t just any pitchers offering to work overtime. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin are making a combined $525 million on their current guaranteed contracts. They’re some of the most accomplished arms in the sport.
“These guys want to win a World Series,” Menhart said in explaining their willingness to pitch in relief. “None of them have. And they prepared themselves for this. I don’t think we overused them for this, to a degree, leading up to this moment.”
The pitching staff has received plenty of attention for its extra work this month, but a few members of the lineup have been asked to do more than they had grown accustomed to during the regular season as well. Particularly the two veterans who have been playing the right side of the infield.
Kendrick and Zimmerman combined for only 560 plate appearances this season. Turn them into one player and they still would’ve come up to bat fewer times than five others on the roster.
But both guys have become mainstays in the Nationals’ postseason lineup, with Martinez counting on their production and experience, not to mention their bodies to hold up through the rigors of October.
“You know what, it hasn’t been so bad, because we have so many off-days,” said Kendrick, who in September openly admitted he physically couldn’t be an everyday big leaguer anymore. “You play two games, you’re off. You play a couple games, you’re off. So the off-days have really helped. I know, speaking for myself, that’s helped me out a lot, not being as sore and have some of those breaks.”
Zimmerman also credited the built-in off-days of the postseason calendar for helping him get through this stretch. But the 35-year-old also admitted he wouldn’t be playing so much if he wasn’t performing (.290 average, four extra-base hits, five RBIs in nine postseason games after hitting .257 with 15 extra-base hits and 27 RBIs in 52 regular season games).
“You have to earn it,” the holder of nearly every offensive franchise record said. “Nothing at this level is given to you. No matter what you’ve done in the past, no matter how much money you make. The goal at this level is to win games. And they were winning games without me.”
Now, they’re winning a lot of games with Zimmerman. And Kendrick. And Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin.
All have been asked to take on some extra load this month. All have jumped at the opportunity to do it.
And now, with the finish line drawing closer no matter the result, they’re ready to empty the tank one last time in search of their first World Series title.
“The bond that they built amongst themselves, it’s unbelievable,” Martinez said. “They play for each other. There’s no selfishness. These guys believe in each other, and they play for each other and they’re constantly together. And I love that.”