Davey Martinez and the Washington Nationals didn’t resort to another bullpen appearance from a starting pitcher Monday night, thank God. That’s a gimmick that was bound to fail the more it’s used, either spectacularly and all at once, or cumulatively, or both. It already blew up in their faces Sunday night; Monday, a quivering-with-adrenaline Max Scherzer made it unnecessary with a masterful start in a 6–1 Nationals win.
Scherzer, as in his start in Washington’s win over the Brewers in the NL Wild Card game, got touched up early. The dreaded Justin Turner, who has been an absolute terror for Nats pitchers in this series, smoked a home run to left in the first inning, when Scherzer left a fastball up in the zone.
The Nationals tied it up at a run apiece on an Anthony Rendon sacrifice fly in the bottom of the third, and by then Scherzer had settled in, retiring the top of the Dodgers’ lineup in order in the top of the inning. By the fourth inning, Scherzer was fully lathered. He closed the fourth with a big strikeout of Gavin Lux, to strand a runner on second base. Listen to this ferocious grunt:
The Nationals broke it open with a big bottom of the fifth inning, featuring a Rendon RBI single and then a huge three-run Ryan Zimmerman bomb to center. Dodgers pitchers had prevented big innings in this series by working the high fastball and counting on the Nationals to put lousy defensive swings on tough pitches. Pedro Báez went back to that well against Zimmerman, but Zimmerman managed to get the barrel on the ball for what felt like the fist time all series:
Even with some breathing room, the question was always how deep Scherzer could get into the game, and who would come out of the bullpen whenever Scherzer’s night ended. The situation seemed especially fraught as heavy rain came and went—in the bottom of the fourth inning, the skies opened up during a Scherzer at-bat with two outs and a man on base, creating the immediate threat of Scherzer making an important out, followed by a rain delay ending his start. Luckily for the Nats, the game was never halted, and Scherzer was able to keep chugging onward.
The seventh inning is the real problem for that hideous Nationals bullpen. If they can get to the eighth with a lead, they’ve got Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, two reasonably reliable late-innings relievers. Scherzer ended the sixth inning at 82 pitches on the night, leaving him plenty of room to at least start the seventh, with Martinez hoping that Scherzer could save him from having to call on anyone from his bullpen. A repeat of the starters-as-relievers trick did not appear to be in the cards—Corbin got shelled in the role Sunday night, after Anibal Sanchez pitched five brilliant innings, and Stephen Strasburg is needed for Game 5. Monday night it was going to be Scherzer completing the seventh or some bullpen bozo wearing his glove on the wrong hand.
And Scherzer got into big trouble in the seventh. He gave up a one-out single to Matt Beaty, then an eight-pitch walk to Lux, then a five-pitch walk to Will Smith. Worse, Scherzer seemed uncomfortable on the mound, grimacing not so much in competitive rage as in distress, failing to locate his pitches, and grunting loudly on 94- and 95-mph fastballs. Mid-90s is still hot hot heat, but Nationals fans know when Scherzer is really reaching back for it, even at the end of an outing, he’s usually hitting 97 or 98. He did not look strong.
But he survived! Scherzer struck out pinch-hitter Chris Taylor after an eight-pitch battle, and then got Joc Pederson to ground out feebly on the right side of the infield, stranding three runners on base and killing the last real Dodgers push.
Afterward, Scherzer talked about experiencing real fatigue in the seventh, and described his arm slot lowering involuntarily, and the mental grind of pushing through to escape the jam. It was one of the best postseason starts of his illustrious career, but also, now he’s toast:
It will be both interesting and terrifying to see how Martinez handles his bullpen in Game 5. Stephen Strasburg has been Washington’s best pitcher since the All-Star break, and one of the two or three best pitchers in the NL over that span. If he can give them seven innings, great. If not, Martinez might’ve been tempted to call upon Scherzer once more, in a winner-take-all spot for a franchise that hasn’t been out of the divisional round of the playoffs since moving to DC. It’s a relief that Scherzer’s already ruled himself out—sooner or later his throwing arm’s gonna pop off on one of those maxed-out fastballs and go frisbeeing into the safety net. He toughed it out and got the job done Monday night, and now the Nationals have to find a way to give him a damn break.