Last week, I said that if the Nationals were a true playoff team, they would show it this week. Well, they went 8–0, and few of the games were close. In the process, they also delivered the blows that took the Phillies and Indians out of the playoff hunt.
There’s very little that went wrong — even Juan Soto and Gerardo Parra snapped out of recent slumps at the plate. So instead of another week in review, let’s skip to figuring out the playoff roster — specifically for the Wild Card Game against the Brewers.
We’ve known since Friday that Max Scherzer will get the start on the mound (as first reported by Scherzer himself on Grant & Danny and later confirmed by Dave Martinez). Right or wrong — and I think it’s wrong — it’s reality.
Martinez has stated that he is open to carrying his other top starters (namely Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez) on the roster. I have a hard time imagining that the Nationals keep all three active, and I favor Strasburg and Corbin, although the latter would likely have to be in a one-inning relief role — he just threw 94 pitches on Saturday.
Then you have the bullpen; the good old, not so reliable bullpen. Of course, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle are safe. I’d keep Hudson as the closer, but matchups could play a role in determining that.
The youngsters (Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey) should also make the roster. Suero is overpowering when he’s properly rested, and Rainey is almost unhittable — consistent command is his only concern.
Speaking of youngsters — and this is admittedly unconventional, and possibly even unpopular — I think starter Austin Voth deserves strong consideration at a minimum. Voth has a 3.30 ERA this season, and a sparkling 2.17 mark since July 16 (29 innings). If the game goes long — last year’s NL Wild Card Game went 13 innings — he becomes a great asset. I could’ve just as easily picked Joe Ross, but the fact that he started on Sunday takes him out of the running.
What I view as the last spot will come down to Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland. As flawed as Rodney’s outings can be, the hard contact Strickland has surrendered recently scares me. Even though the Nationals traded for Strickland in hopes of him being a setup man, I don’t feel comfortable with him.
I’ll lump catchers in here, too. That’s easy; it’ll be Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. There were questions about Suzuki’s health, but he’s playing now, so he can at least be the backup (and a great pinch-hitting option).
Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner will obviously start. Asdrubal Cabrera most likely will, and Howie Kendrick probably should, but that may depend upon who’s on the mound.
Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Adams, and Brian Dozier are all virtual locks to make the roster. I’ll also make a case for Wilmer Difo, whose 4–7 performance in two starts this week catapulted him into the discussion. Admittedly, I wanted to see him get more reps throughout this month, but a hot bat (combined with a .300 partial season in AAA Fresno) and his speed and defense carries significant value, especially on a team that’s one play away from being in big trouble on the left side of the infield.
The starting outfield is pretty cut and dry. I believe Soto, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton will each play major roles in whether this team gets to the NLDS. Even so, they’ll carry multiple more outfielders. Michael A. Taylor provides late-game defense and base-running prowess, Parra got hot at the plate at the perfect time, and Andrew Stevenson has reached base in more than half of his pinch-hitting appearances this season. They all seem indispensable moving forward.
Starting Pitcher: Max Scherzer
Middle/Long Relief: Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Austin Voth
Late Relief: Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle, Fernando Rodney, Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey
Lineup: SS Trea Turner, RF Adam Eaton, 3B Anthony Rendon, LF Juan Soto, 1B Howie Kendrick, 2B Asdrubal Cabrera, CF Victor Robles, C Yan Gomes, (pitcher)
Bench: Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Adams, Brian Dozier, Gerardo Parra, Michael A. Taylor, Kurt Suzuki, Andrew Stevenson, Wilmer Difo
According to Adam McCalvy, Brandon Woodruff will be starting for the Brewers. He is right-handed. Even so, Kendrick has been more productive against righties than Adams, so I’ll stick with him and save “Big City” for the right matchup as a pinch hitter. After all, Woodruff averages fewer that six innings per start — and I suspect that they’ll err on the shorter end and turn to the bullpen early.
The Nationals have scored at least five runs in nine of their last 11 games, and eight or more runs in each of the three games against the Indians to close out the season — and that was while digging deep into the bench. There’s little reason to doubt the bats, and the Brewers’ relatively soft starting rotation should ease any angst even further.
This game will come down to pitching, specifically one man: Max Scherzer. If the ace can pitch like himself (one of the best starting pitchers in the league), the Nationals will get to the NLDS — and you’ll see an NLDS roster projection from yours truly.