Max Scherzer pushes himself 'to the edge' to provide Nationals a chance to topple Dodgers

WASHINGTON — I’ve never lived in Washington, D.C., and I don’t have a strong affinity for visiting. These days, I associate the city primarily with news I’d rather not know but feel obligated to follow along with. My childhood allegiance elsewhere in the NL East means that I tend to think of the Nationals as rivals upon which to wish misfortune. What I’m saying is that I don’t root for the Nats. Or, rather, didn’t root for them — until Max Scherzer, 99 pitches into a historic outing against the Los Angeles Dodgers, had the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning of a do-or-die game and I pressed my palms together in front of my face like so many tense crowd shots you’ve seen of sporting events over the years, held my breath, and hoped he would get out of it unscathed.

I guess I shouldn’t be telling you that. Professional objectivity and all. It’s just that after giving up a solo shot to the third batter in Game 4 of the National League Division Series Monday night, Scherzer had gotten steadily better as the weather worsened around him, at one point retiring 10 consecutive Dodgers, who scored the NL’s most runs in the regular season. And now if he could just get out of this jam, all of that would be immortalized as the iconic October moment of a future Hall of Fame career.

How could you not root for that?

All night he had paced himself, pitching to contact in the early innings and keeping some heat off his fastball for the sake of staying out there long enough to limit the Nationals’ exposure to their biggest liability: the bullpen. In their quest to go from wild-card team to toppler of the 106-win Dodgers, the most effective member of that bullpen had been Max Scherzer making a surprise relief appearance in Game 2. They had won that game, lost Games 1 and 3 and now, when another loss would send them home until spring, Scherzer would have to be his own backup.

This had been the plan all along. Watching his team lose Game 3, their first back in D.C. since winning the wild-card game last Tuesday, Scherzer had told manager Dave Martinez that he was available to pitch an inning.

“I said ‘hey, buddy, you know, if we had to, you might pitch 140 pitches tomorrow, so just get your rest,” Martinez relayed to reporters. They needed a vintage Mad Max performance in Game 4, like something from before he missed a month and returned to the tune of a 4.74 ERA down the stretch.

Things didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. On the eighth pitch Scherzer threw, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner hit a fastball that left the bat at 107.6 mph and sailed into the stands. Which were not, for the first time this October, full. With a dreary forecast and an elimination on the horizon, the Nationals failed to sell out the stadium Monday night. They were right to worry about the rain. It started in the Nats’ half of the fourth, which ended with Scherzer at the plate, getting soaked as he lined out to center field.

Maybe there was something in the water because minutes later he struck out the side, all swinging, two on sliders, one on a changeup.

The solo shot was the only run the Dodgers would score. But it looked like it was enough to keep pace with the quiet Nationals’ bats until Ryan Zimmerman — a career Nat who is tired of being asked about whether he thinks he just played his last game in this stadium — secured his own postseason legacy in the city with a three-run homer into the center-field batter’s eye as part of a four-run fifth.

“Old guys can still do it,” Scherzer would say after the game.

All that plus a sac fly was enough to give the Nationals a five-run lead when Scherzer went out for the seventh inning. He hadn’t been fully fresh all night and as his pitch count crept up toward triple digits, the 35-year-old started to feel the effects of pitching in his third game in a week, his arm slot slipping and the game becoming more of a mental grind.

“I was just gassed. I was out. I was empty in the tank, giving everything I got,” he said.

His catcher, Kurt Suzuki knew it, too, and was working to accommodate that — and ward off the type of late-inning explosion that the Dodgers used to upend the Nationals a night before.

“You try to get creative. You don’t want to get too creative and get beat with something just kind of getting too tricky out there, but you definitely try to be a little bit more creative,” Suzuki said.

Creative worked to get Corey Seager to fly out. But then Matt Beaty singled. Gavin Lux walked. Will Smith walked. Lesser pitchers have been pulled for less. Five runs is some wiggle room but watching someone else give up a sac fly — or, with this bullpen, worse — that would put an earned run on Scherzer’s final line would have diminished the way he gritted and growled when he didn’t have the gas to deliver a clean slate in the form of a winner-take-all Game 5. I didn’t want to watch the Nats escape with a lead intact, eking out a win, and living to play another day.

I wanted to see Houdini on the mound.

Pitching coach Paul Menhart went out to give his ace a chance to catch his breath — just a chance to catch his breath.

“It was Max's game at that point,” Martinez said.

“He told me he loved me,” Menhart joked.

And then, with nothing left in the tank except the entire season on the line, Scherzer gutted out another 10 pitches, two outs, no runs.

And from that iconic performance came an indelible visual: Max Scherzer, fist clenched, snarling with his teeth bared like an emoji or a rabid wolf, turning to see the hope he hath wrought in the home dugout.

“I think Max likes to get the crowd fired up and then when he gets out of it, they get really fired up. So maybe that all worked into the plan,” Suzuki said later. “Might look like a maniac out there, but he’s smart.”

After that, how could they not hang on? Sometimes baseball writes itself and rights itself and even a bad bullpen can get six outs for a 6-1 victory. And so it is that the momentum seems to favor the underdog, traveling cross-country to play in a hostile ballpark Wednesday night against the best team in the league, a trip to the NLCS on the line. It helps that Stephen Strasburg will be starting, on full rest after getting the club’s first win of the series in L.A. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Martinez will look to repeat the formula from that night and bring Scherzer back out of the bullpen. So would he, could he?

“I doubt it,” Scherzer said. “No, I mean, my arm is hanging right now. That pushed me all the way to the edge and then some. So, yeah, I can't imagine any scenario where I'm pitching.”

Course it would be a hell of a story if he did. Not that that guarantees you anything. Baseball is full of great stories that almost were and gritty performance that went for naught. Max Scherzer isn’t untouchable, and the Nationals will need a little more than narrative magic just to survive this first round — and if that, only to find themselves in a seven-game series still with only four pitchers they trust on the mound. I don’t know if this team deserves to topple the Dodgers, but watching Scherzer practically pitch his arm off on Monday night, how could you not root for them to make it count?

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