CHICAGO — Max Scherzer’s health and pitch count put Nationals manager Dusty Baker in the kind of tension-filled spot only the playoffs produce. Monday, Scherzer had not allowed a hit when he took the mound in the seventh inning. But, he had thrown 90 pitches a day after saying he would max out at 100. Left-handed reliever Sammy Solis was warming in the bullpen when the inning started. The time for decisions that decide games, series and reputations had arrived.
Scherzer stomped around the mound after striking out cleanup hitter Wilson Contreras to open the inning. Switch-hitting Ben Zobrist was coming up. Scherzer remained in. He had not allowed a hit on a day the Nationals were not positive about how well his “tweaked” right hamstring would allow him to pitch. Scherzer made a mechanical adjustment in his delivery in the days before the game — it allowed him to get his right foot up higher faster when he followed through — that alleviated the pain in his hamstring. He was handling the Cubs as well as if he was healthy.
But, Zobrist doubled to left-center field for the first Chicago hit of the day. That stirred the crowd, ended Scherzer’s outing and forced Baker to summon a reliever after a discussion on the mound. He picked Sammy Solis.
This is where the questions start. Should Scherzer have remained in the game to face left-handed Kyle Schwarber? Should Baker have picked Oliver Perez or Matt Albers instead of Solis? Brandon Kintzler had been warming up, too.
Scherzer said he explained to Baker how he felt. In these times when the manager is leaning one way, and the pitcher is pushing for the other, it’s the catcher who can break the tie. Matt Wieters suggested a replacement. Baker raised his left arm.
“I had all the adrenaline I need,” Scherzer said. “We were all kind of 50-50 on what was going to happen. Kind of looked at Wieters — sometimes your catcher can be the deciding factor on how everything is coming out. We kind of looked at and thought that Sammy Solis was the best option for us.
“I know you guys are probably going to second-guess that but these guys are here to make a decision. When they made that decision, I wasn’t going to override anybody. These are pressure-packed situations. They’ve done their homework and they’ve done their job to come up with the best scenario in that situation — Dusty all year has done that situation for us. That’s everybody on the staff, making that decision. They’re making the best decision for the team. And when they made that decision, I was behind it as well. I was just juiced out of mind with adrenaline. That’s just how it is.”
“Well, it was very difficult, but you know, we thought Max had had enough, especially coming off the injury, and you know, Schwarber is a dangerous man,” Baker said. “I probably couldn’t live with myself if Schwarber had hit one out of the park on you, which he’s dangerous to do that.”
“Max is trying to keep himself in it because he feels he can do anything,” Wieters said. “But at that point, Max had done all he could do for us after having to fight through the hamstring to even get back out there on the mound. He did a great job of setting it up for our bullpen and really we had two balls that weren’t hit all that hard that ended up costing us the game.”
Maddon countered Solis with right-handed Albert Amora Jr. His single to center scored Zobrist and tied the game, 1-1. Scherzer’s day of work was undone by two batters. He finished with 6 ⅓ innings, one earned run, one hit, three walks and seven strikeouts on 98 pitches.
Solis left after allowing another single to Jason Heyward. Brandon Kintzler entered to face Addison Russell, who hit a crisp fly ball to center field. Michael A. Taylor ran back and pulled it in, threw to the cutoff man, Daniel Murphy, who, after losing his footing, threw to first to double-off Heyward. The game, like the series, was tied 1-1 with space for just two innings left on the ancient green scoreboard in center field.
More decisions came in the eighth. Baker removed Kintzler in favor veteran Oliver Perez to face left-handed Anthony Rizzo with a runner on second. The options then were to leave in Kintzler, who has quality results against left-handed hitters despite being right-handed; bring in Perez to match up; or walk Rizzo, the Cubs’ best hitter in this series, and use a right-handed pitcher, Ryan Madson in this case, to face Willson Contreras. Baker stuck with Perez, who delivered a 94-mph sinker that jammed Rizzo, but still produced the game-winning hit.
“I can’t say anything, because a hit is a hit,” Perez said. “That’s why we say sometimes you have to tip your hat. You make a good pitch, and he gets a hit. We all prefer for it to be an out.”
Scherzer watched the ball fall, then tried to rethink the process from Perez. He couldn’t come up with a better idea than what Perez had produced.
“He threw the ball great,” Scherzer sad. “I’ve run it through my head 100 times. I don’t know what you do different there. He got about as weak of contact as you can possibly get. And that’s baseball.”
Scherzer will be watching Tuesday with the hope he is back on the mound Thursday. If Washington wins Game 4 behind Tanner Roark, Scherzer said he would be available out of the bullpen in a deciding Game 5 at Nationals Park on Thursday night. His teammates just need to give him the chance.
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