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Washington Nationals relief pitcher Tanner Rainey throws against the Houston Astros during the sixth inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington.
Washington Nationals relief pitcher Tanner Rainey throws against the Houston Astros during the sixth inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

While watching and getting swept up in all of the charms of the Washington Nationals’ postseason run, with their dancing and stunning starting rotation, it became clear as this World Series turned at Nationals Park over the weekend that such a turn was happening for a reason.

For all the Nationals’ strengths, their bullpen was jockeying for position all season long with the Orioles’ for the distinction of the worst statistical group in the majors. One team had the offense and the starting rotation to cover for that, and the Nationals have made an incredible run because of it. The Orioles, of course, did not.

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Unlike the Orioles, at least from a roster-construction standpoint, the Nationals’ struggles were not for lack of trying. This offseason, they traded longtime starter Tanner Roark to the Reds for hard-throwing reliever Tanner Rainey, added former All Star-turned-injury reclamation project Trevor Rosenthal, bought Marlins closer Kyle Barraclough for international bonus slots, and took all kinds of minor league fliers.

All that, combined with midseason additions such as Hunter Strickland, Roenis Elias and Daniel Hudson (who has been good), and the resulting bullpen in the regular season had a 5.68 ERA with a 5.03 xFIP (which uses walks, strikeouts and a league-average home run rate to assign a pitcher an ERA based on what they control). The Orioles were the only team worse in ERA, ending the year with a league-high 5.79 ERA and a 4.97 xFIP.

The main difference, of course, was that the Orioles’ bullpen pitched 154 2/3 innings more than the Nationals, meaning the Nationals’ rotation of Max Scherzer, Steven Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Anibel Sánchez were on the mound in those vulnerable middle to late innings.

Those pitchers getting later into games certainly helped, as the Nationals’ bullpen allowed 42% of their inherited runners to score (87 of 209), while the Orioles, whose percentage was the next-worst, allowed 38% (112 of 293).

Especially in the playoffs, the Nationals were able to use their dominant starters to cover relief innings around off-days, and through the first two games of the World Series, that worked out well. The starters’ success meant their top relievers — Sean Doolittle and Hudson — allowed two earned runs over 13 innings in the first two rounds plus the Wild Card game, and helped build a 2-0 lead in the World Series.

But combine suboptimal starts from Sánchez and Corbin on Friday and Saturday with Scherzer’s late scratch Sunday, and the care taken to put the Nationals’ bullpen in a good spot has been spoiled.

The whole point of this Orioles’ rebuild is to build a sustainable talent pipeline and develop pitching, and the team’s emphasis on starting pitching is bound to yield both that and bullpen arms. Their 2019 pitching class is getting strong reviews from outside the organization with the fastball-slider combinations the Astros’ empire was built upon.

But as executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias noted in his season-ending comments, there’s more to bullpen struggles than just the relievers. They often get the blame for myriad other shortcomings on a team, whether it’s inconsistent starting pitching or a lack of runs scoring. For most of these playoffs, the Nationals have been good enough to overcome it. They’ll just need to do all those things and then some to snatch the World Series from Houston.

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