It would be nice, albeit utterly ridiculous, if the Washington Nationals decided to have Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer pitch every inning in the team’s series against the Dodgers, but considering how the two performed in Game 2 of the NLDS, fans would be forgiving for wanting something akin to that game plan moving forward. First, the complimentary reasons: Strasburg struck out 10 batters through six innings of an outing where he only allowed one run, further proving that he should have been the one to start the NL Wild Card game against the Brewers on Monday. He also made some history, overtaking Sandy Koufax for the lowest playoff ERA in history with 0.64, per MLB Stats. Scherzer, meanwhile, came in at the top of eighth as a reliever and retired three straight batters via strikeout on 14 pitches.
The suggestion for Mad Max to pitch relief on two days’ rest actually came from Scherzer himself just before the game, according to MLB.com’s Jamal Collier. He spoke to his coaches and made it clear that he could give at least one good inning without risking too much before his Game 3 start in Washington on Sunday. The results seem to back up his claim.
“For me, you bring it whenever you’re told to bring it,” Scherzer said. “This is the playoffs. You lay it on the line every single time you touch that field. Whenever I get the ball next, I get the ball. And you just lay it on the line.”
These are the words of a dedicated teammate who feels the need to do anything in his power to get his squad to the promise land. They’re also the words of someone who understands the lack of support he has from some of the other guys he plays with, which brings us to the more unflattering reasons for the desire mentioned earlier. Remember when the Nationals’ bullpen had a reliever whose ERA was infinity earlier this season? As it turns out, getting rid of him didn’t solve a whole lot of the bullpen’s troubles. Washington finished last in the league in that stat—yes, even behind the Orioles—with a whopping 5.66. That kind of poor play has carried over into the postseason, and it almost wasted not just an incredible start from Strasburg, but also a vintage postseason Clayton Kershaw performance where he was straight ass for a couple innings.
The 3-1 lead built from Kershaw’s poor play was cut to 3-2 after Sean Doolittle came in to pitch in the seventh and promptly gave up a solo shot to Max Muncy on the first pitch of his at-bat. After a brief respite in the eighth thanks to Scherzer, it looked as though the Nats were primed to blow great performances again when, in the top of the ninth, Daniel Hudson walked two batters when he only needed one more out to end the game—one of those was intentional, the other was not. However, fortune smiled on Washington with Corey Seager up to bat, and Hudson escaped with the save.
After the game, Trea Turner was asked about Scherzer’s relief appearance and he gave the following response:
“For me, it’s you pitch your best guys to win,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Obviously Max is in that category for us and in the elimination game Strasburg was in that category as well. I’m not a pitcher so I don’t know how much effort that takes or whatnot — but it was huge. I don’t necessarily expect him to do that every game or every time he has a bullpen day, but it was big today and we needed it.”
It’s sound logic, but it also proves that the Nats are in a bit of a conundrum for the remainder of this series. Only two players make up that “best guys” category for Washington: Strasburg and Scherzer. Either the Nats will have to take the insane approach of playing both of them in some capacity for every single game, or they’ll just have to accept the L’s they take on days when one, or both, need some rest. It’s the kind of lose-lose situation that is rather quintessential to the Nationals’ postseason experience.