The Nationals’ Bullpen, a Weakness, Is Turning Into a Strength

HOUSTON — The number could still haunt the Washington Nationals, could still be chiseled on their tombstone if the Houston Astros recover and win this World Series. It is 5.66, the Nationals’ bullpen earned run average in the regular season. No playoff team in major league history has ever had an E.R.A. so high.

“It’s a gutty group of guys down there, man,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said late Tuesday night, after four of those guys preserved a 5-4 victory in Game 1 at Minute Maid Park. “They’re sick and tired of hearing about it, I know that much.”

Of course, regular-season numbers mean nothing in late October, when teams often change the composition and usage of their bullpens. For the Nationals, the ghastly E.R.A. is mainly a scar now, a symbol of trauma for the fans, perhaps, but of opportunity for the pitchers. Before the playoffs, they rallied around the chance to start over.

“We talked as a group heading into the final homestand of the season that we wanted to change the narrative,” said Sean Doolittle, who saved Game 1 by retiring all four hitters he faced. “We were well aware of how we’d kind of stumbled as a group over the course of the season and what the numbers said.

“But we wanted to say, ‘Hey, when this is all said and done, let’s have the story be that we came back and we were there for the team, helping the team win down the stretch and into the playoffs.’ And we’ve been able to find ways to get it done.”

Judging by the raw data, the narrative would seem to be holding up. Through Game 1, the Nationals’ starters had a 2.16 postseason E.R.A. and their relievers a 4.73 mark. But much of the relievers’ figure is skewed by one bad outing in the division series from Patrick Corbin, a starter who was working in relief. Remove that performance (six earned runs in two-thirds of an inning) and the bullpen E.R.A. is 2.93.

“Everybody in this locker room believes in us,” reliever Tanner Rainey said. “Whatever everybody else thinks could be different, who knows, but in this locker room we believe that we can do it.”

The Nationals carry a few relievers they are likely to use only in an emergency or a lopsided loss — Javy Guerra, Fernando Rodney, Joe Ross and Wander Suero. Starters Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have helped in relief once apiece this month, and Corbin, who will start Game 3 or 4 in Washington, has done it four times.

“At this point, you might as well pitch in games instead of bullpens,” Corbin said, referring to his typical between-starts routine. “I just try to be available whenever they need.”

On Tuesday, the Astros’ deep and disciplined lineup drained Scherzer, who needed 112 pitches to wade through five innings. Manager Dave Martinez followed with Corbin for the sixth, Rainey for an out in the seventh, and then Daniel Hudson and Doolittle for four outs apiece.

The Astros scored twice in the bullpen’s four innings, with five hits and two walks. But Corbin stranded a runner in the sixth, Hudson fanned Yordan Alvarez with the bases loaded to end the seventh, and Doolittle retired Michael Brantley on a liner to left to end the eighth with a runner on second.

Juan Soto (who was 3 for 4 with a homer and a double) tracked that ball down, another highlight in one of the greatest games ever by a 20-year-old in the World Series. Victor Robles, the Nationals’ fleet young center fielder, corralled the last two fly balls in the ninth.

“It’s not a bad plan to have them hit it to the 20-year-old in left and the 22-year-old in center,” Doolittle said. “Those guys can absolutely go get it.”

Doolittle has been a mainstay for Washington since Rizzo acquired him from Oakland at the 2017 trading deadline. The deal cost the Nationals one of baseball’s best young pitching prospects, Jesus Luzardo, but was only part of the answer for a unit that always seems to be under construction.

Some signings have flopped, like Trevor Rosenthal, and so have some trade acquisitions like Hunter Strickland, who was dropped from the playoff roster after a shaky division series.

Hudson, though, has been part of the solution. Released by the Los Angeles Angels in March, he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, pitched well for four months, and had a 1.44 E.R.A. with six saves for the Nationals down the stretch.

“He fills up the strike zone; the hitters are going to beat him, he’s not going to beat himself,” Rizzo said. “And he got a real good feel for that four-seam fastball up in the zone his last couple of weeks with Toronto.”

Hudson, 32, is the rare high-leverage reliever who strikes out less than a batter per inning, relying on his fastball and slider for weak contact. Like Doolittle, who said he got away with a fastball down the middle that Alex Bregman took for a strike in the ninth, Hudson survived a scare in Game 1 when George Springer missed a game-tying homer in the eighth by just a few feet at the wall in right-center.

“I hung a slider,” Hudson conceded. “It wasn’t a very good pitch. You do that to a hitter like that, you’re kind of lucky to keep it in the ballpark.”

Luck was with the Nationals. Adam Eaton could not catch the ball, but Springer settled for a double and no other Astros reached base. While Doolittle earned this save — plus another in the National League Championship Series — Hudson has four saves this month, not bad for a pitcher with only 11 in 10 seasons before joining the Nationals.

“It’s been a wild six months,” said Hudson, but October has been the most hectic. He left the team for Game 1 of the N.L.C.S. to be in Arizona with his wife, Sara, for the birth of their third daughter, Millie. He said the family may join him for the games in Washington.

“Everybody’s happy, healthy, especially me,” Hudson said. “I’m just trying to get through these games and hopefully get out of here with a ring.”

He sounded like he would need more sleep than his newborn whenever this World Series ends. But as a father of three, Hudson knows better.

“My wife won’t let me do that,” he said, smiling. “That’s not going to work.”