This extended break between the National League Championship Series and the World Series offers the Nationals a chance to rest their overworked pitchers and a chance to figure out how to make sure their hitters stay in a rhythm without facing live pitching in actual games for six days.
It also offers ample opportunity for the Nats to consider all their roster, lineup, bullpen and bench options for either potential opponent. Maybe too much opportunity.
“Do our homework,” general manager Mike Rizzo explained. “Be thoroughly, thoroughly prepared for the competition that’s going to happen next week, and make sure we’re ready to play and hit the ground running. Because if you’re not, with these two terrific baseball teams, we want to come out of the gates fast.”
The Nationals do have to be careful not to overthink it. They can prepare for every possible game scenario they can think up, but what happens when something unexpected actually happens? Can they just trust their instincts and have a feel for what’s working in the moment, rather than simply rely on the homework they prepare before the Fall Classic?
This team doesn’t have to get too cute. The path to reach this point was fairly straightforward. Score early runs via a well-balanced lineup. Get six or preferably seven quality innings from the starting pitcher. Hand the game over to the couple of reliable relievers you’ve got.
The formula has worked splendidly so far this month, resulting in an 8-2 record and three clinching celebrations.
That said, there are a few pertinent decisions the Nationals must make between now and Tuesday ...
ANY ROSTER CHANGES?
The Nationals made two changes from its NL Division Series roster to its NLCS roster. Relievers Wander Suero and Hunter Strickland were dropped and replaced by Javy Guerra and Roenis Elías. In the end, it made no difference, because neither Guerra nor Elías appeared in the four-game sweep against the Cardinals.
But the Nats have to prepare for the possibility they’ll actually need to use more relievers in the World Series, so they have to decide whether to keep their bullpen intact or make more changes.
“We kind of have an outline (for each) opponent,” Rizzo said. “And we’ll kind of pull things together as we get a little closer.”
What changes could they make? Well, they could decide to go back to Suero, who faced only three batters in Game 3 of the NLDS and gave up a double and a homer while recording only one out. Guerra’s ability to pitch multiple innings of relief (and penchant for throwing strikes) should keep him safe, but Elías (who made only four appearance after his July 31 acquisition due to a pair of hamstring injuries) is hardly secure on this roster.
Strickland, who appeared twice against the Dodgers and gave up home runs to three of the 11 batters he faced, seems unlikely to have earned a spot back on the active roster. Other pitchers who are eligible to be added include Joe Ross and Erick Fedde, starters who would have to pitch out of the bullpen. Given their struggles in those roles during the regular season, it probably doesn’t make sense to try them out again as relievers now.
What about the bench? The Nationals have had the same six-man group of reserves in the NLDS and NLCS: catcher Yan Gomes, first baseman Matt Adams, infielders Asdrúbal Cabrera and Brian Dozier, and outfielders Gerardo Parra and Michael A. Taylor. Outfielder Andrew Stevenson, who made the wild card roster and scored one of the key runs in the bottom-of-the-eighth rally to beat the Brewers, has been on the outside looking in sense.
Stevenson brings some valuable skills to the table (speed, defense, good pinch-hitting numbers), but with four of the seven World Series games in the American League city, there probably just aren’t going to be enough opportunities for someone like Stevenson to contribute.
WHO’S THE DH?
Speaking of those four games in the AL park, the Nationals need to figure out who’s going to be their designated hitter. For some NL clubs, this is a disadvantage. For these Nats, it could actually be a benefit.
How many NL teams have this many quality options to pull off their bench as the extra hitter in an AL lineup? Not many.
So the question boils down to who the Nationals most want to add to their lineup: Adams, Cabrera or Dozier? Adams would be a solid DH option if facing a right-handed starter. Cabrera or Dozier would probably take over at second base and allow Kendrick to serve only as DH and take some of the load off his 36-year-old legs.
Don’t be surprised if the DH changes from game to game, based on matchups. For example, Adams has better career numbers versus Gerrit Cole (5-for-21, double, homer) than Asdrubal Cabrera (2-for-17, six strikeouts). But Cabrera has plenty of experience versus Justin Verlander, and some success (21-for-76, six doubles, three homers, .819 OPS), while Adams is a mere 0-for-3 in his career against the Astros righty.
WHO’S PITCHING IN RELIEF BESIDES THE BIG TWO?
We know Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson are going to be the two guys Davey Martinez relies on the most out of his bullpen. But chances are, he’s going to have to trust at least one or two others in situations of consequence.
Tanner Rainey has stepped up in the last week-plus, retiring each of the last eight batters he has faced (Game 5 versus the Dodgers, Games 3-4 versus the Cardinals). The rookie right-hander has become Martinez’s most trusted arm beyond Doolittle and Hudson, and it’ll probably stay that way until he shows he can’t handle the role.
Fernando Rodney pitched an important inning during the Game 3 win over the Cardinals and has already shown he has his manager’s trust. What about beyond that?
We still haven’t seen Austin Voth in a game this month, though Martinez keeps talking up the rookie right-hander as a potential option to bridge the gap between starter and back of the bullpen. Guerra and Elías, as stated earlier, haven’t come close to pitching in a game, either.
What about more starters in relief? Though the Nationals seem committed to restricting Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to starting duties only, they were more than willing to use Patrick Corbin in relief during the NLDS and NLCS. And depending on how Corbin slots into the World Series rotation, he could be an option again for that role.
If the Nats hold Corbin back to start Game 4, he’d be available out of the pen for Game 1 (or possibly Game 2). He’d then also be available in relief for Game 6 or 7. Given the team’s lack of lefties, it’s going to be awfully enticing for Martinez to again turn to his $140 million southpaw starter to record a few key outs late in games.