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Max Scherzer’s approach is everything in World Series Game 5 as Astros get a second look

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He allowed just two runs in six innings in Game 1, but Max Scherzer will need to better execute his off-speed and breaking pitches if he’s going to go deep into Game 5.

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Three Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

When Max Scherzer is at his best, his fastball sets the tone, his changeup turns hacks into grounders, his curveball changes hitters’ eye level, his cutter wipes out lefties and his slider is so nasty it probably forces righties to reconsider their profession given how often they whiff at it.

Against the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the World Series, Scherzer pitched well enough to get the win, but it wasn’t the vintage-type performance Nationals fans have grown accustomed to seeing out of the future Hall of Famer. He allowed two runs over five innings, striking out seven but allowing five hits and three walks as he labored through 112 pitches.

“They absolutely grinded me, never letting me get in rhythm,” Scherzer said after the game.

“I was having to make pitches out of the stretch from the first inning on, and for me, I just stayed with [catcher Kurt Suzuki]. Zuk called some big time pitches for me tonight, and blocked some big-time pitches for me too, especially with runners on third base.”

In Game 5, Scherzer will be tasked with shifting momentum back in the Nationals’ favor after the Astros took Games 3 and 4 in D.C. Although Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson are well rested and the team will have an off day Monday, the Nationals are hoping Scherzer can go deep into the game so as to avoid using their taxed middle-relief arms.

“It’s just going to be a challenge,” Scherzer said before Game 4 on facing the same lineup twice in a week. “I think the only advantage of this is that I don’t face the Houston Astros that much. In the National League that kind of happens a little bit more once you start getting ten at-bats then I think that kind of equals out and maybe a hitter gets a little bit more advance because they understand what you’re going to do to them.

“I still feel that I could execute better and give their hitters just a little bit different look even though they did get to see me pitch against them and what it looks like.”

If he’s going to do that, then he’s going to need his off-speed and breaking pitches to be more reliable than they were in Game 1. His fastball looked sharp and touched 97 on several occasions, but the Astros’ patient approach on pitches outside the strike zone made it more difficult for his four-seamer to be effective.

According to Brooks Baseball, Scherzer threw 12 changeups in the game and didn’t induce a single swing and miss; nine of them were called balls. Of his 11 curveballs—a pitch he threw for strikes 41.3% of the time this season—just two resulted in strikes. He only threw four cutters, but one resulted in a walk of Yordan Alvarez and another Michael Brantley drove into right field for a line-drive single.

Given how many right-handed hitters are in the Astros’ lineup, Scherzer’s most important pitch just might be his slider. He was still able to use it as a strikeout pitch—his three Ks with the slider were the most of any of his pitches—but righties didn’t bite on it diving low and away from the plate.

When asked Saturday whether he’s going to change his approach for Game 5, Scherzer didn’t give up any specifics about his game plan.

“The game will dictate that,” Scherzer said. “The scoreboard will dictate that. You’ve got to just get into the flow of the game, and understand where everything’s at, where you’re at in the lineup, who’s up, score of the game, inning, pitch count, you name it. That all just goes into the same thing. You just have to have your instincts out there and work with the catcher and just figure out what you want to do.”

To go deep into the contest, Scherzer may need to adopt the same approach he took in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Washington entered that contest down 2-1 in the series badly needing Scherzer to go at least seven innings after four of their middle relievers pitched in Game 3. He induced five grounders and 13 fly balls, going seven frames with only seven strikeouts.

Scherzer dramatically increased his curveball usage, and he didn’t give up a hit on it all night. Instead, the Dodgers either watched it in for a strike or drove it straight into the ground. His slider and cutter worked exceptionally well and while his fastball wasn’t necessarily overpowering, he wasn’t afraid to throw it up in the zone to force fly balls.

But the big difference between the Dodgers and Astros is that Los Angeles rolled out a lefty-heavy lineup, and Scherzer hasn’t used his curveball against right-handed hitters very much this season.

So in addition to relying heavily on his slider like he usually does, it’s going to be vital that Scherzer throws his changeup for strikes in Game 5 after failing to do so in Game 1. It’s been his best pitch for inducing ground balls all season, and would help shorten counts to keep him on the mound late into the game.

With the series heading back to Houston after tonight, the Nationals would love to pick up a win in front of their home crowd and avoid a 3-2 deficit for Game 6. There’s nobody on the team Washington would rather have pitching in this matchup, but it’s going to be a tall task for Scherzer to execute against one of the best offenses in baseball for the second time in five days.

The Astros will continue to lay off balls outside the zone, so it’s up to Scherzer to adapt his game plan and put the Nationals back in the driver’s seat of this series.