Jul 31, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
There’s no one way to win in October. Teams have found plenty of formulas for success in the postseason, whether in the form of a deep rotation, one dominant workhorse, a quality bullpen or an opportunistic lineup.
But here’s one way to try to do it: Get seven innings out of your starter, then get one inning apiece out of a pair of lights-out relievers.
That’s what made Thursday afternoon so enticing for the Nationals. They got an early solo homer from Ryan Zimmerman, then watched as Max Scherzer put up seven zeroes, with Drew Storen adding another in the eighth and Jonathan Papelbon wrapping up with a 1-2-3 ninth.
That’s how you win a 1-0 ballgame, and that’s how you could win plenty of ballgames come October.
When Mike Rizzo traded for Papelbon on Tuesday, this was precisely what he had in mind. And it only took a couple days for the scenario to play out exactly to plan.
First and foremost, Scherzer needed do what he did, shutting out the Marlins over seven innings. The right-hander perhaps wasn’t as unhittable as he was during his historic June, but he was plenty good enough. And he made some big pitches when he needed to, whether inducing a double-play grounder to end the sixth or striking out Adeiny Hechavarria on a 95-mph fastball to end the seventh and his afternoon.
There have been times this season when Matt Williams has felt compelled to push his starters too far, to try to squeeze one extra inning out of them. Why? Often because he has more confidence in a tiring starter than in the amalgam of mid-to-late inning relievers who have occupied his bullpen at various points of the season.
Perhaps that managerial style will change a bit now, what with Casey Janssen (21 of last 23 batters retired) available to pitch the seventh, Drew Storen (MLB-best 1.37 ERA over the last two calendar years) available to pitch the eighth and Papelbon (18-for-18 in save opportunities) available to pitch the ninth.
We don’t know for sure yet how this will all play out, but if the last two days are any indication, this new-look bullpen may work out just fine after all. The key, as was noted at the time of the Papelbon trade, is how Storen deals with a relegation of roles through no fault of his own.
Well, here’s how Storen has fared so far since the trade was made. He has faced six batters. He has retired all six, four via strikeout. He has thrown 19 pitches, 17 of them for strikes.
Obviously, these have been an emotional couple of days for the closer who is no longer a closer. That he has been able to channel that emotion into a couple of lights-out pitching performances bodes well for Storen and for the Nationals moving forward.
Papelbon, for his part, has appeared to go out of his way to help make the transition as smooth as possible, spending as much time as he can alongside Storen and sharing and receiving tips from his new bullpen mate.
That doesn’t mean this is going to go swimmingly the rest of the way. There could, and probably will, be bumps in the road, and it’ll be up to the various participating parties to overcome those and stay focused on the task at hand.
But on Thursday, everything went exactly according to plan. And if this remain on that straight-and-narrow path, the Nationals might just have themselves something special for the stretch run and beyond.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
ON THE RADIO
As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
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