Bullpen provides plenty of relief
Nats silence Cubs over last 4 innings, win again
CHICAGO — The bullpen door opened one last time Saturday afternoon, splitting a crack into a wall of Wrigley Field ivy, revealing Daniel Hudson before he broke into a light jog.
Hudson was the last of five relievers to enter for the Washington Nationals, following Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland and Fernando Rodney. He then got the final three outs of a 7-2 win over the Chicago Cubs, which gave Washington a three-game cushion atop the National League wild-card standings and revealed how Dave Martinez may handle his bullpen until closer Sean Doolittle returns.
The five-run victory didn’t include a traditional “save opportunity,” but it didn’t need to. Once the Cubs drew closer, and starter Joe Ross exited after 4 1⁄3 innings, Martinez had a puzzle to piece together.
It was the manager’s first chance to roll out this thinned, rested, evolving bullpen for extended work. And he pressed all the right buttons, at least this time, for the Nationals’ 11th win in 13 games. His relievers recorded the final 14 outs without giving up a run.
When the Nationals put Doolittle on the injured list last Sunday, announcing he had right knee tendinitis, it made sense in a few ways: Doolittle’s arm needed rest and his head needed to be cleared, and 10 days off, or more, was an antidote for both. And the Nationals were also heading into a soft part of their schedule, not counting the Cubs, which may have factored into the decision.
Doolittle can be activated Wednesday, at the earliest, and has begun throwing off a mound. But if the Nationals wait until Sept. 1, three days beyond Doolittle’s minimum IL stint, their roster will expand to 40 players and he can be a de facto call-up.
Martinez has left that open as a possibility. He’s confident in his highleverage options while Doolittle recovers. He just hadn’t had much chance to use them.
The Nationals offense, meanwhile, has continued to make Martinez’s bullpen decisions less stressful. It has scored seven or more runs in 10 of the past 14 games.
Their starters had allowed two earned runs in 30 1⁄3 innings before Ross took the mound. That hasn’t made for much late-inning drama. The only time there was some, in a 4-1 loss to the Pirates last Tuesday, the Nationals’ bullpen blew it in the eighth and there was no save opportunity.
“I like the fact that the games are lopsided right now,” Martinez said with a laugh. “When the game decides to not be lopsided, then we’ll make those decisions [about a closer].”
Saturday threatened to turn into a tight contest after the Nationals took a 5-0 lead, scoring once in the first and four times in the third, with Yan Gomes punctuating the rally with a two-run single. Ross, to that point, had held the Cubs down with a heavy diet of sinkers.
But trouble came in the third when three singles brought in Chicago’s first run. Ross got out of the inning, wiggled out of a jam in the fourth, then gave up a run-scoring double to Jonathan Lucroy in the fifth.
That ended Ross’ outing at 88 pitches. Suero relieved in the middle of a jam and stranded two runners in scoring position with a strikeout and popout to short.
The Nationals led 5-2 and needed 12 more outs from their bullpen. They added another run in the sixth, then Rainey worked a shaky, scoreless bottom half. Then Martinez’s critical decisions began.
The manager has pegged Strickland, Hudson and Rodney as his likely options for the seventh, and eighth and ninth. He has not, however, specified an inning or role for any of the three righties.
Instead, Doolittle’s absence should allow Martinez to tinker based on matchups and situations. It could lead to more inventive bullpen usage, rather than funneling everything to a designated closer, and make the Nationals a bit harder to prepare for. But that’s only if Martinez sticks to the promise of creativity and his pitchers perform.
Neither was a problem against the Cubs. He went with Strickland in the seventh to face Nick Castellanos, Kris Bryant and Lucroy, three right-handed hitters in the middle of Chicago’s order. Strickland struck out the side.
Martinez went with Rodney in the eighth, his spot when Doolittle was closing earlier this summer, and the 42-year-old went one-two-three on 12 pitches. The Nationals created more separation in the ninth on Howie Kendrick’s RBI double, but Hudson was warming and entered anyway.