How Nationals Can Defy the Odds and Still Win It All

The Nationals no longer have a clear path to the World Series title like they did leading the series 2-0. But they still have a shot as the Fall Classic pivots back to Houston for Game 6.
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First, let’s state the obvious: The Nationals’ current position isn’t ideal. They’re down 3-2 in the World Series, a scenario in which teams have historically lost a little more than two-thirds of the time. But that means that teams have won a little less than one-third of the time—not great, no, but certainly not impossible. So how do the Nationals join that second group? Here’s a framework…

A Pitching Path to Game 7

As it relates to Game 6, Stephen Strasburg is the best thing the Nationals have going for them. If he can do something close to what he did in Game 2—six innings, two runs, seven strikeouts—they should be in decent shape. It’s who will come after him that’ll be interesting. This series has seen notably heavy use of the Nationals' B-Team relievers (several of whom have done surprisingly well!) but that will likely stop here. Manager Dave Martinez didn’t use his two best relievers, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, between Game 1 and Game 5, so as not to overexpose them to Houston or burn them in situations where the game was already out of hand. From now on? They’re the only members of the ‘pen who should be out there. (No, Hudson’s ninth-inning home run to George Springer on Sunday does not change that.) But this doesn’t mean that they should be the only guys to come out in relief: Starters Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez should be available, too.

This leaves one big question for a potential Game 7. Will Max Scherzer be available, and if so, in what capacity? After he was a last-minute scratch with back and neck spasms for Game 5, it’s unclear. When he appeared before the media on Sunday, he was in visible pain, unable to turn his neck and forced to rotate his entire body to face reporters. But after receiving a cortisone shot—which has the potential to take effect and alleviate his pain within 48 hours—there’s a chance that he’ll be able to pitch on Wednesday. Asked after Game 5 if Scherzer would be available, Martinez said, “He’s going to figure something out… He’s going to try to get himself ready.”

The ideal situation here would be to use Scherzer for as much as is possible for him, whether that’s one inning or three or five. Some combination of Aníbal Sánchez and Patrick Corbin could bridge the gap to the later frames. And Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson could take it from there.

So the best-case scenario for the Nationals would be a deep start for Strasburg in Game 6, an opening performance from Scherzer in Game 7, and strong work to cover the rest from Corbin-Sánchez-Doolittle-Hudson. Does that require a lot to go exactly right? Sure. (Namely, Strasburg has to shove, and Scherzer has to be healthy.) Is it possible? Definitely.

An Offensive Path to… Do Something

But, of course, even if everything goes well on the mound, without some sort of performance at the plate, there won’t be a Game 7. The Nationals’ bats have gone frighteningly quiet since the series moved to D.C: They’re 17-for-97 with just three runs in the last three games. They’re ­1-for-21 with runners in scoring position. Yes, one of those games was a start by Gerrit Cole. And one of them was a start by… José Urquidy. They’ve certainly faced good pitching. (Houston had baseball’s highest ERA+ for a reason.) But they’ve also just been wretched in unprecedented fashion.

“The more you talk about it, the more you think about it, the worse it gets,” said outfielder Adam Eaton after Game 5. “We’ve just got to continue to fight and grind, and hopefully good things happen.”

As for whether there’s reason to have faith here, it may be reassuring to remember that it’s not as if the team has just been whiffing on everything. They’ve been making contact, and some of it has been fine, even if that’s not reflected in the results. Their expected batting average for the last three games was better than their actual batting average (.216 certainly isn’t great, but it’s better than their real figure of .175), and the same is true of their expected slugging percentage (.359 versus .258). It’s been bad, definitely. Just maybe not quite as consistently bad as it’s seemed.

“I thought our guys put together good at-bats over the three games,” said reliever Sean Doolittle after Game 5. “They were grinding out at-bats, getting the opposing pitchers’ pitch count up, taking walks when they were there. We just weren’t able to get that big hit or that shutdown inning…. It goes both ways. They played better than we did these last three games. They found ways to capitalize on their opportunities, and we just weren’t quite able to.”

The general picture is definitely bleak. But it may have a chance to get better. The Nationals don’t have to deal with another game against Gerrit Cole (though they do have Justin Verlander…) and they’ve seen quite a lot of the best relievers here. If Strasburg can keep them in it against Verlander for Game 6, then maybe they can work against a ‘pen that they’ve had decent exposure to in recent days. And if they can hit Greinke in Game 7—which they did in Game 3, forcing him out in the fifth after allowing seven hits—then they just may make it. This all makes for a tall order. It doesn’t help that Houston excels at making adjustments on the fly. But, hey, crazier things have happened.