Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Washington champion

Quite the impressive October for the Washington Nationals, who won five straight elimination games and had to overcome deficits in each.

Here's an apparent trend: This is the third straight World Series won by a team whose manager, with reason, mistrusted his bullpen and turned to starters to fill relief roles:

The 2017 Astros saw Ken Giles --  who had a fine regular season, with 34 saves and a 2.30 ERA -- implode repeatedly in the playoffs. In the Series that year, A.J. Hinch finished wins with Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. Lance McCullers finished the clinching win in the ALCS.

The 2018 Red Sox similarly saw their closer, Craig Kimbrel, splutter in the postseason. When Alex Cora had a chance to wrap up the series, he brought in his top starter, Chris Sale, and left Kimbrel in the pen. Kimbrel was charged in the 2018 postseason with seven runs in 10.2 innings.

The Nationals this year were in a different boat; bullpen depth was a problem all season. Closer Sean Doolittle had some injury issues and pitched to a 4.05 ERA. They picked up Daniel Hudson, an oft-injured journeyman -- he's had two Tommy John surgeries -- from the Blue Jays in an end-of-July trade that barely showed on the radar, and he performed far better than anyone could have imagined.

Doolittle and Hudson gave the Nats a usable back-end of the bullpen. Bridging the innings between the starters -- and the Nats do have a notably strong rotation -- and Doolittle/Hudson was an issue. Davey Martinez dealt with that issue in the playoffs by utilizing starters, particularly lefty Patrick Corbin (the winning pitcher in Game Seven).

The Astros were confident in the quality of their bullpen this October. And that confidence was sustained until Game 7, when Will Harris and Joe Smith imploded and Roberto Osuna didn't get the job done either. My Twitter feed Wednesday night fed me plenty of criticism of Hinch for bypassing Gerrit Cole for his usual relief crew. I suspect that criticism gets extra lift because we now have a string of winning managers -- including Hinch in 2017 -- who bypassed his usual relief crew for a starter.

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