Dusty-proofing the Nationals

“Showed exactly what we thought. Nothing major. More of a tool to help know how we need to treat it. We have a pretty good idea of what we need to be able to do to get back out there. The good news thing about this is I can walk and run around on this. It’s not a major strain or anything where it’s debilitating. So I’m pretty upbeat and positive going forward here.”

Max Scherzer on his hamstring injury

That’s weird. I could’ve sworn I heard something similar just a few weeks ago. What was it again?

“As of now, I don’t see it being much of an issue…It could have been a lot worse. It didn’t pop or anything like that so that’s a good sign…We’ll deal with it, manage and get through it. I don’t foresee it being a serious deal.”

Jake Arrieta

The lesson: it’s probably not a good sign when your ace takes 74 words to try to say “I’m fine.”

Nationals fans are quite concerned with Max Scherzer’s condition—and understandably so. The Washington braintrust has tried to allay those fears, with Dusty Baker downplaying it by claiming “In a bigger situation, he probably could have stayed in the game.” That’s not exactly encouraging either. You don’t want to go the urologist and hear “Your chlamydia hasn’t cleared up yet but what the hell…it’s the playoffs!”

Scherzer’s hamstring is one of the biggest stories of the NLDS and Baker is already hedging his bets as to how this is going to affect his rotation plans. For the Nationals, this also brings up an unnerving big picture question:

Exactly how much did they Dusty-proof their team?

Here’s something that sounds disturbingly familiar: the Washington Nationals rotation spent the 2017 season consistently running up some of the highest pitch counts in baseball. Throughout the summer, Nats fans have been bombarded by headlines such as:

Nats starters being pushed to the brink with high pitch counts (May 22)

Take a deep breath: The Nationals’ rotation leads baseball in pitches per start (June 6)

Based on yesterday’s pitch total, Stephen Strasburg will be lucky to survive the night (July 3)

OK, I made that one last one up. It’s obviously a joke headline. Just like this…

Max Scherzer chooses to run up pitch count (September 14)

I mean, that’s just…hold on, I’m being told that one’s real.


“‘I asked and we thought it would be a good idea to get me into 120, 115, 100 pitch count,’ Scherzer said, ‘I thought that would help benefit me going forward and then looking ahead into the postseason, to pitch with some extra fatigue.’”

Apparently, due to a number of minor injuries Scherzer hadn’t gone over 100 pitches in a while and on that mid-September start, he wanted to take on an extra inning’s worth of work. He ended up getting torched in that inning, Baker was slow in getting the bullpen up, and Scherzer threw a total of 116 pitches on the night. Or as Mark Prior used to call it: a side session. And what did Dusty have to say about this?

“It looked ugly to us and the fans and everybody else. But if you have a game plan, you stick with it as much and as long as you can.”

Hoo boy.

The only surprising part of any of this is that Dusty didn’t tell Scherzer to warm up between innings by trying to body spear Marcus Giles.

A week and a half later, Scherzer left his final start with the injury. And really, the Nats lucked out that it was a hamstring issue. Scherzer is only the tip of Baker’s pitch count iceberg. Since the Nationals’ bullpen spent most of the summer auditioning for a FEMA grant, their entire playoff rotation ranked among the league leaders in pitches per start.

Scherzer’s 100.4 PPS was 10th in all of baseball–just behind Tanner Roark at number nine with 100.5. And they were both soundly outranked by Gio Gonzalez who finished third in MLB with an astounding 105.1. Even the injury prone Stephen Strasburg checked in at 25th with 97.9.

We know from painful past experience that treating his starters this way has come back to bite Baker at the worst possible times. And you can make the argument that it already has started to happen again this season. In his last six starts, Gonzalez amassed a bloated 5.85 ERA with 16 walks in 32.1 innings. Not to be outdone, Roark put up an ERA of 4.39 in his final 12 appearances (11 starts) of the season.

Suddenly, Baker and the Nationals have created a lot of questions about what should be a deep group of starters. But at least they’ve figured out the bullpen, right? Their midseason acquisitions of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler were brilliant in solidifying the final three innings of the game.

Except here’s the thing: those three pitchers and Matt Albers are also the full extent of Washington’s bullpen depth. If everybody on the starting staff performs up to their capabilities, Baker has a plan in place for innings seven through nine. But with Scherzer’s injury and the possibility of diminished performances from Gonzalez and Roark, suddenly Dusty might be forced to improvise with his relief corps.

And as anyone who’s taken a Second City class with the funny guy from marketing can tell you, there’s nothing more painful than bad improv. Ask the 2002 Giants. Or the 2003 Cubs. Or even last year’s Nats who had to watch Dusty go through six (!) pitchers in the decisive four run seventh inning of Game 5.

I’m pretty sure that at one point, the umpires had to remind Dusty that the Walter Johnson statue wasn’t on his postseason roster.

The NLDS is an extremely short series and could turn on any number of things. But it’s worth remembering going into it that Dusty Baker has spent the entire season doing Dusty Baker things. If any of those starting pitcher workloads come home to roost, that means there could be a key moment in a playoff game where Cubs hitters get to face Joe Blanton or Oliver Perez.

And there’s not enough magic dust in the world to fix that.

Lead photo courtesy Brad Mills—USA Today Sports

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1 comment on “Dusty-proofing the Nationals”


Sounds like deja vu all over again…

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