The Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers have opposite approaches to the question of how best to win with pitching. The Nationals will start ace Max Scherzer on Tuesday and hope he goes as deep into the National League wild-card game as he possibly can. The Brewers will start Brandon Woodruff, their ace on the mend, and probably lift him after around 40 pitches — at which point the bullpen will become a revolving door. The Brewers match up with relievers as much as any team in baseball.
“It’s basically like we’re starting in the sixth inning with their pitching staff,” Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton said. “There’s nothing we can do to prepare for that.”
The contrasting philosophies on display for the one-game playoff reflect the heart of these organizations. The Nationals, principally owned by the richest family in baseball, committed $525 million dollars to three starting pitchers — Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Scherzer — and rode them here. The small-market Brewers cobbled together one of the sport’s better bullpens on largely inexpensive deals and deployed it liberally to string together 18 wins in their last 23 games and eke into the postseason. The Brewers paid their entire pitching staff $39.2 million this season, according to Baseball Prospectus, which is only slightly more than Strasburg ($38.3 million) and Scherzer ($37.4 million) will earn this year alone.
The answer to which approach works best — quality or quantity — could play an outsize role in who advances to the National League Division Series against the top-seeded Los Angeles Dodgers. Both teams expressed confidence in their way, but Brewers Manager Craig Counsell didn’t believe one was better.
“Playoff teams should be different; I think that’s cool,” he said. “Teams have to play to their strengths [and take advantage of their personnel]. . . . Our depth and our numbers are what makes our pitching good, and that’s how we’re going to treat games.”
If Counsell had the Nationals’ roster, he would manage accordingly. He called Scherzer a probable Hall of Famer and intimated that if Woodruff were further along in his return from injury he’d probably lean more heavily on him, too. The Brewers’ star right-hander tossed six stellar innings against the Nationals in May, but he missed two months with an oblique strain and has thrown fewer than 40 pitches in each of his two starts since. Counsell seemed pessimistic Gio Gonzalez, a former National, could be available for the game because he started Saturday.
Whether Scherzer can get into the sixth or seventh inning and deliver an ace-caliber start is unclear. He has been shaky since returning from injuries of his own — a balky back sidelined him for several weeks — though he has had seven straight starts since and feels 100 percent. Manager Dave Martinez will apparently afford him some leeway; he intimated Sunday that he wouldn’t lift his starter at the first sign of trouble.
But Scherzer could need relief early. If he does, Martinez must make hard decisions. He could go with regular relievers, who said they will be available from the first inning on, or Strasburg or Corbin. Even if this doesn’t happen, the Brewers said they would feel more confident the longer Scherzer stays in.
“If he’s throwing well, he’s obviously one of the best pitchers in the game,” Brewers infielder Travis Shaw said. “But if you can get multiple shots at a pitcher, it benefits the hitter.”
Nationals hitters stressed the key against the Brewers is to find a balance between aggressiveness and patience. Hitters often try to attack early against relievers because they know the pitcher has little margin for error and prioritizes efficiency to be available the next day. But when every pitcher functions as a reliever, they must weigh the usual approach against seeing more pitches and stressing top-shelf arms. Eaton sees his role in the lineup as a taxer, and he preached the need for balance. Early, hard-fought at-bats might force the Brewers to face difficult decisions.
“If you can get some of their really good arms out of the way, I think it’s only going to benefit us,” Eaton said. “Patience and grittiness will go a long way.”
Whenever the Nationals go to the bullpen, they forfeit any advantage Scherzer might have given them. The Brewers’ bullpen is a well-conditioned machine, refined by the fire of their playoff push. It features three versatile, dominant lefties in Josh Hader (one of baseball’s toughest matchups for years), Brent Suter (NL reliever of the month for September) and Drew Pomeranz (a once-struggling starter who went to the bullpen and became Hader-lite.). Their top high-leverage right-handers are Junior Guerra and Jay Jackson.
The Nationals’ bullpen is still undefined. Washington doesn’t have the left-handed specialist it acquired at the deadline (Roenis Elías, out with a hamstring injury), and its relievers aren’t locked into definite roles. Strasburg, seemingly the Nationals’ first option in relief, has never appeared out of the bullpen. Their second choice, Corbin, has but not regularly in three years.
First baseman Ryan Zimmerman said Strasburg could get the job done in the must-win game but cautioned against changing habits developed over a six-month-long season. He joked: “Oh, just go out and get three outs in the big leagues against one of the better teams in one of the biggest moments, and it’ll be exactly the same.”
“You have to be careful doing too much of that,” he added. “I think people get carried away with it and just assuming we’re not humans. If you’re used to doing something, it’s hard to do it in that situation.”
Closer Sean Doolittle proposed normalizing the situation for starters-turned-relievers as much as possible by only using them to start innings. If Scherzer, for example, departed with two on and one out, let a reliever familiar in those spots “clean that up.” Doolittle emphasized that he felt confident the team will have three pitchers who will receive Cy Young Award votes available but that it’s all about what button to push and when.
“These are the questions that you have to think about,” he said. “You want to use your strengths, but where is that line where you’re putting somebody too far outside their comfort zone?”
These are the questions with which the Nationals must grapple as their season hangs in the balance.
The Brewers could have played a one-game division playoff had they won, instead of lost, two extra-inning games this weekend. Their play this weekend suggested a team that, after having had to charge from behind because of mediocre play in the first five months of the season, has run out of gas. What will end the Brewers’ season — because they have to play a one-game playoff on the road followed by, in the less-than-likely event they win tonight, followed by a trip to 106-win Los Angeles — is a poor record against the National League West (15–19) and in interleague games (8–12), of all things.
The only way the Brewers can win this game is if Scherzer is not on and the Nationals have to go to their bad bullpen (as in the worst ERA of any playoff team by far) early. Pitchers like Scherzer and their postseason experience is why you pay them the big bucks, unless, like the Brewers, you can’t develop long-lasting starting pitching and can’t afford to purchase starting pitching and instead must cobble together a pitching staff.
You probably can tell I’m not optimistic about tonight. Remember, I was right about last year.