Dave Martinez knew it. He knew it by the fourth, when the Astros worked Max Scherzer for 27 pitches, pushing his pitch count on the night to an unsustainable 96 through four, but also he knew it on Monday, when the Nationals manager declined to name a starting pitcher for Game 3 despite having a clear best third starter. In his press conference that afternoon, Martinez was asked the obvious question: Did that mean he intended to use Patrick Corbin in relief in the first two games of the World Series? “We shall see,” he replied cryptically.
We saw, as Corbin came on to throw a scoreless sixth inning in Washington’s 5-4 Game 1 win over the Astros.
The problem’s pretty simple. The Nats have just two relievers they trust—Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle—maybe two-and-half, depending on how generous you want to be toward Tanner Rainey. (Rainey got knocked around Tuesday night. Doesn’t matter; it’s not as if there are better choices going forward. Martinez said “I told him: ‘You’ll be back out there tomorrow. We need you.’”) They have at least three starters they trust, in high-, low-, and all-level leverage situations. But you only get one starter per game. Usually, anyway. This is the World Series, where because the only thing that matters is winning this game, now, today, the starter-reliever boundary becomes mere suggestion.
“It was all based on how long Max could go,” Martinez said. “As the game was rolling along and I started watching Max’s pitch count, I knew there was going to become an inning that we needed to pitch Corbin.”
Again: simple math. Scherzer having to labor and come out after five left 12 outs to get, and if Rainey, Hudson, and Doolittle each went an inning, there was no other choice in Martinez’s mind but to use Corbin.
This is how it’s been all playoffs long for the Nationals. They used Stephen Strasburg in relief in the Wild Card game, on two days’ rest. Scherzer threw an inning out of the pen in Game 2 of the division series, about an hour after he had been named Game 3's starter. Corbin pitched in relief in that Game 3, and though he got shelled, Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo—and, of course, all three starters—insisted they wouldn’t shy away from the plan, that a bad outcome doesn’t mean a bad strategy.
It’s self-evidently a good strategy, not just because good pitchers with certain mindsets are good pitchers no matter when and how they appear, and not just because the Nationals have a lead in the World Series. It’s a good strategy because the only viable one; need is necessary and sufficient recommendation for any plan. What, you want Wander Suero out there instead?
For as obvious as bringing on Corbin in Game 1 was, things will get more complicated for the Nationals the longer this series goes. It’s unclear whether Corbin will be able to start Game 3 on Friday, though that appears to still be the plan: Martinez said there was no way he was going to throw more than one inning last night, and this was Corbin’s throw day anyway. But what if Corbin’s needed again in relief in the series? Or, what if Corbin can’t go very long on Friday and Scherzer, who because he is an insane robot is the likely Game 4 starter, has to come out of the pen? Is Aníbal Sánchez a fill-in starter, or a mop-up reliever? Howie Kendrick can probably pitch in a pinch, right? This is the World Series. Let’s get weird.
And because it’s the World Series, and there’s nothing after but the specter of a winter of what-ifs, Martinez and the Nationals are going to treat every game like a must-win, and every batter like a save situation. “We’re going to play every game to go 1-0,” Martinez said, and they’re 1-0 because Patrick Corbin helped lock it down. The best pitcher for the job is the best pitcher.