WASHINGTON — The rarest thing the sellout crowd on hand for Game 3 of the World Series saw on Friday was not a World Series game in Washington. It’s been 86 years since the last one, but there have been 10 of those. How many other times has a manager decided to not go all out to win a single game in the playoffs—and still made the right call?
The Astros won 4–1. They now trail the series 2–1. The Nationals let off the gas. Houston won the game. Washington may have won the series.
Hey, Sean Doolittle, how hot is that take?
Doolittle, the closer, laughs. “It’s spicy,” he says.
O.K., this is an unusual opinion, but this is also an unusual matchup. The Astros are historically good at solving relievers. The Nationals boast a historically thin relief corps.
Washington trusts three members of its bullpen: Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson and Tanner Rainey. The team’s intention is to spend as much of the series as possible using only the starting pitchers—sometimes for one inning between starts, as with Patrick Corbin in Game 1—and those three relievers.
Houston’s intention is to crack those relievers. Astros hitters study opposing pitchers to search for tells that can telegraph which pitch is coming next, but they also possess enough athleticism to adjust their approach even without that information. In a one-run game, the Nationals have already noticed—the Astros attack aggressively and take big cuts. With more cushion, they grind out at bats and shorten their swings. The Astros already enjoy one of the most dangerous lineups in the game; as they see a pitcher’s repertoire, they grow even more comfortable at the plate.
So, once Houston took a 2–0 lead over starter Aníbal Sánchez on Friday, the smartest thing Washington manager Dave Martinez did was to roll out his B team. Three times he motioned to the bullpen in rightfield. But he never brought in any of his top relievers.
His first opportunity to sell out came in the fourth inning, down two runs. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman led off with a walk. Rainey, the third-most trustworthy reliever, began warming up. Catcher Kurt Suzuki struck out swinging. Centerfielder Victor Robles tripled to bring the game within one. Martinez thought long and hard: This was a key moment offensively. … Sánchez had thrown only 60 pitches. … The Nationals needed to tie the game. … They’d been hitting the ball hard without much to show for it. … He had lefthanded hitters Matt Adams and Gerardo Parra on the bench. … This was the first of as many as three consecutive games for the bullpen. … Martinez sent Sánchez to hit for himself. Sánchez struck out. Shortstop Trea Turner sent a dribbler to the pitcher. Inning over. Threat extinguished.
Sánchez allowed another two runs before Martinez went to Fernando Rodney with one out in the sixth. Next came Joe Ross, then Wander Suero. It’s easy to say that Martinez should have hit for Sánchez in the fourth, then gone to Rainey for two innings, called upon Game 5 starter Max Scherzer for one, then asked Hudson and Doolittle to cover six outs. If you go for broke like that, you need to win. In all likelihood, they would simply have lost by less. Martinez likes to say he wants to go 1–0 each day. But that’s not how you beat Houston.
In Game 2 of the ALCS against these Astros, Yankees manager Aaron Boone pulled his starter, James Paxton, after seven outs. New York had won Game 1 in Houston, but the Astros had taken a 1–0 lead and had men on first and second in the third. Boone summoned Chad Green, one of his top firemen. Green shut down the lineup. The Yankees went ahead by a run, so Boone kept rolling out his most elite arms, even after Houston tied the game at 2. The intent was admirable, but the result was crushing. New York eventually lost 3–2 in 11 innings, a defeat that may have cost them the series: The Astros got a look at each of the Yankees’ top arms.
By Game 6, a bullpen game, the relievers were all exhausted. Worse, Houston had made the adjustments for which its lineup is famous. The hitters began to anticipate New York’s pitch sequencing and adapt to the movement of the pitches. The Astros scored six times and won the pennant on a walk-off.
“The more times you face guys as relievers, you get overexposed,” said Zack Britton after that game. “It’s inevitable.”
The Dodgers could have warned the Yankees. Closer Kenley Jansen faced Houston six times in the 2017 World Series; top setup man Brandon Morrow pitched in all seven games. At first they stifled the Astros. Then they survived them. Then, eventually, they fell to them. Houston won in seven.
“Any time you can limit exposure, especially in a long series like this, it’s probably a sneaky good thing,” says Hudson. “As relievers, nobody throws, like, five pitches. I don’t have anything up my sleeve. I only have one or two things to show these guys, so maybe the less I show it, the better off we are.”
That’s true in the long term. It’s also true in the short term. On Saturday the Nationals will start Corbin, a two-time All-Star to whom they committed $140 million over six years. The Astros will counter with a bullpen game opened by José Urquidy, who has 41 career major league innings pitched. Houston used four of its top five relievers on Friday. Washington’s top three have combined for 12 pitches since Tuesday.
So, Sean, have we convinced you?
“It’s not as spicy as I first thought,” says Doolittle. “I still obviously would have liked to have won tonight.” Fair enough.