Aníbal Sánchez started things off with 7 2⁄3 scoreless in which he allowed just one hit, taking a no-hit bid into the eighth in Game 1 of the NLCS with the St. Louis Cardinals. Max Scherzer followed up on that outing with seven scoreless innings of work on the mound in Game 2, in which he gave up just one hit, walked two, and struck out 11. Stephen Strasburg went seven strong as well, giving up seven hits and one unearned run, striking out 12 without allowing a walk.
“They’re feeding off each other, they really are, and it’s fun to watch,” Davey Martinez said in his postgame press conference after Game 3.
“They sit there, and they watch, and they talk, and they communicate,” Martinez explained, “... and they get together, and they’re going over what they’ve done that helped them [be] successful that day. Then the next guy comes up. Even though Scherzer and Stras are hard, and Sánchez ... they watch. They watch videos, and then they go out and they compete.
“They compete every day, and they compete amongst themselves. Like I said, it’s a lot of fun.”
“They always say -- whoever they is -- that hitting is contagious,” Cards’ skipper Mike Shildt told reporters before Game 4 of the NLCS. “I also feel like pitching can be contagious, too. I know internally, when we started to take off, our starting pitching really started to have that continuity, and I can tell you that that group was pulling for each other and also competing to say I can do this, and I can move this forward, as well.
“My sense is that’s probably happening with that group,” Shildt said of the run the Nats’ staff was on in the NLCS.
“My sense is also that probably isn’t the first time that’s happened with that group either.
“This is a group that’s been together and has some history together and has had success together. So I do feel like they’re definitely riding that momentum as a unit.”
Patrick Corbin did enough (5 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 12 Ks) to get the win in Game 4, as the Nats swept the Cardinals to advance to the World Series.
“Our starting pitching was the key,” Martinez said on Friday afternoon, when the Nationals got back together to work out in advance of the Fall Classic.
“They kept us in every ballgame this year, and they’ve done it all playoffs, so it’s nice to go out there with a Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Sánchez, Corbin, I mean these guys are a big reason why we’re here.”
“We believe in starting pitching,” the second-year skipper said at another point in the NLCS.
“That’s where it all starts. [GM Mike Rizzo] did a great job of getting the guys we have now. They keep us in ballgames. That’s how it all starts.”
In these days of bullpenning and piecing together pitching, the Nationals’ have focused on starting pitching, with Corbin (6/$140M) and Sánchez (2/$19M) added to the mix over the winter, joining Scherzer (who signed a 7-year/$210M deal in 2015) and Strasburg (who signed a 7/$175M extension in 2016), when Rizzo and Co. in the Nats’ front office spent big on the free agent market, putting money behind their belief that in spite of all the changes to the game over the years, a strong rotation still plays.
“I really believe that,” Martinez said. “And for me you look at all the great teams, teams that won, teams that went on, and you look at their starting pitching, I mean, to me that’s the key. I look back, even back in the day when I was a kid, and yeah you had the Reggie Jacksons, but people don’t realize you had the Ron Guidrys that got them there that won 20 games. The Baltimore Orioles had three guys 20 games plus. The Boston Red Sox back when [Curt] Schilling and Pedro [Martinez] were there, and the Yankees when they were really good, go in there and face those guys, [Roger] Clemens and [Mike] Mussina and those guys, I think that’s how you start a winning team, with your starting rotation.”
“I think that it’s always been a part of my DNA as an executive,” Rizzo said of the importance of strong starting pitching on Friday afternoon.
“I was lucky enough in 2001 to win a World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks. We had the same formula over there with Joe Garagiola as the GM, we went after Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson and we really loaded up on really good starting pitching. Had a good, long, deep lineup that put the bat on the ball more often than not. We could manufacture some runs, we could do some quick-strike home runs, so I think that kind of was my foundation on how to build a championship-caliber club, and it’s kind of stayed with me since then.”
Neither Martinez or Rizzo was willing to commit to a plan for the starting rotation in the World Series when they spoke to reporters on Friday, though they were clear that there won’t be any surprises when they make it official.
Martinez said they were doing due diligence on both the Astros and Yankees, both of whom were still fighting it out in the ALCS when spoke, and, “... once that series is over then we’ll have a better idea of what we want to do.”
“Davey and I haven’t met officially yet,” Rizzo said, “but I don’t think the pitching plans will come as any shock to anybody.”
The Nationals’ rotation, as a group, led the NL in strikeouts in 2019, (with 1,010 total), and in home runs allowed per nine innings (1.11 HR/9), and ended up ranked second in the National League in ERA (3.53 ERA), opponents’ batting average (.232 AVG), and opponents’ on-base percentage (.296 OBP), and they went 27 starts without a loss at one point (between June 16 and July 20) this season, with a combined 16-0 record and a 2.55 ERA over that stretch, and the trio of Strasburg (251 Ks), Scherzer (243), and Corbin (238) made the Nats’ the first team in MLB history to, “... have a rotation feature at least three players with at least 222 strikeouts.”
Will the Nationals’ starters lead them to a World Series win as well?