Dusty Baker had a choice to make heading into the seventh inning of last night’s NLDS finale, and both options would have been defensible. Nobody would have blamed him for keeping Max Scherzer, who had thrown 99 pitches and worked himself through some high-stress situations at that point, on the bench; and no mobs would have formed if Baker had decided to let his ace pitch through one more inning, because that’s what aces are for. But instead of choosing either of those sensible options, Baker managed to split the difference, going with a third option that led to his team’s unraveling.
Baker did let Scherzer take the mound to start the seventh inning, and after the game he explained the logic behind his decision quite eloquently (via Washington Post):
“You know, a couple years ago when they took [Jordan] Zimmerman out of the game and everybody was crying about that, why they took him out of that game,” Baker said, referencing Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS. “And if I had taken him out — I mean, Max said he was still good. We were hoping to get another inning out of him.”
“How do you take out your — a guy in a 1-0 game?” Baker said. “And Max is capable of going 100-some-odd pitches.”
All of that is true, and remained true even after Joc Pederson hammered the first pitch of the inning over the left-field fence and made it a 1-1 game. The ball Pederson hit out was a 96-mph fastball on the outside corner of the plate, and was not evidence that Scherzer had suddenly lost his stuff or his composure. All that home run proved is that baseball is crazy, and sometimes you’ve got to deal with a big swinger like Pederson turning a solid pitch into a homer.
Baker decided to hit the panic button, though, and immediately pulled Scherzer in favor of Mark Rzepczynski. In one moment, Baker was handing the fate of his team’s season to Scherzer, and in the next he was snatching it away despite the fact that nothing had really changed. Rzepczynski of course went on to walk Yasmani Grandal on four pitches, officially starting the Nationals’ death spiral.
Who the hell knows what Scherzer would have made of the rest of that inning if Baker had decided to leave him in after Pederson’s dinger. Maybe he would have gotten the next three outs in 15 pitches; maybe he would have walked a few guys and coughed up the game himself; maybe he would have spontaneously combusted. That’s not the point, though. The point is that Baker trusted his ace enough to let him start the inning, and then suddenly lost that trust after one fluky solo homer. That’s the decision-making process of a manager who’s not thinking straight, and it will leave Nats fans—as well as a few players, I imagine—agonizing over what could have been.