CHICAGO — Max Scherzer is back, and as good as he is going to be.
Scherzer is set to pitch Monday’s Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs, which starts at 4:08 p.m.
After being pushed back to Game 3 instead of starting the series or pitching Game 2 because of a hamstring “tweak,” Scherzer is in a crucial spot.
Saturday night, when the Nationals appeared ready to copy and paste the script of playoffs past as the favorite who can’t score or get out of the first round, a sudden pivot arrived. Bryce Harper’s two-run home run tied the game in the eighth inning. Ryan Zimmerman’s three-run homer followed not long afterward to provide a lead. Sean Doolittle’s save squared the series after a manic turnaround for a team that was enduring a tension-filled dugout.
Scherzer was stuck hanging on the railing during the first two games. He had to watch and add strength to his right hamstring. The irritation he felt in his final start of the regular season on Sept. 30 had nagged him enough that the organization decided early after the regular season ended that he would be moved to Game 3 of the NLDS. The move cost Scherzer the opportunity to make two starts in the series. But, it also allows him to be available out of the bullpen in Game 5, should his health hold and the series come to that.
“It was a process of going through every scenario and weighing the risk versus reward of, you know, knowing that I probably wasn’t going to be able to pitch Game 1,” Scherzer said Sunday. “And then looking at the schedule here for five games, and knowing that Strasburg could pitch 1 and 5; that by pitching Game 3, that gives us a couple extra days to build extra strength into my leg, which I needed, and also provides the possibility that if you do pitch Game 3, that you could be in relief for Game 5, if need be.
“So we kind of ran down every scenario of what a five-game series looks like and tried to make the best decision possible for the club.”
Tanner Roark is still slated to pitch Game 4, which is Tuesday night in Chicago. One pitcher who will not start that game is Stephen Strasburg. Despite his dominant outing in Game 1 of the series, Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said Sunday there was no chance Strasburg would pitch Tuesday on short rest.
“Stras has never done it, not going to experiment at this point,” Maddux said.
Back to Scherzer. He threw from flat ground again Sunday in right field in Chicago. Scherzer mixed off-speed pitches with fastballs before getting in sprints. His focus since leaving his final regular-season start early has been to add strength back to his right leg, which is his drive leg when he pitches. Two questions linger: How will Scherzer feel when pitching in a playoff game as opposed to on a bullpen mound or flat ground, and how long can he last?
“When I get on the mound [Monday], I’m fully anticipating being able to throw 100 pitches,” Scherzer said.
A key for him will be maintaining his release point. Scherzer said he has pitched while hurting in the past, but knowing he was finishing the follow through on his pitches in the proper place allowed him to continue throwing. He said Sunday shoulder and elbow concerns come when an arm slot and release point is altered. That’s the focus to avoid.
To have Scherzer in Game 3 is a curious wrinkle in the series. When things looked most dire Saturday night, with the threat of an 0-2 hole looming, Scherzer appeared lined up to handle an elimination game. Instead, Harper and Zimmerman put him in position to pitch the Nationals into a series lead and two shots at advancing out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in organization history. With the series now down to a best-of-three situation, the Nationals have their ace heading to the mound.
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