Back on Friday, the Washington Nationals saw Stephen Strasburg continue his streak of postseason dominance, dicing up Los Angeles Dodgers hitters over six strong innings.
The former number one overall pick continues to deal in October, with his postseason ERA now at a pristine 0.64. That’s ahead of Mariano Rivera’s 0.70 for best all-time with at least 28 innings, and better than Sandy Koufax’s 0.95 ERA of those with at least four starts.
Strasburg has been near-flawless throughout his career in the postseason. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the team’s $210 million man, Max Scherzer.
The right-hander gets the call in a must-win affair tonight as the Nats stare elimination in the face following last night’s 10-4 loss. They need their ace to step up like he hasn’t before in October.
While his 3.91 ERA in the Postseason since joining the Nationals in 2015 doesn’t really jump off the page either way, Scherzer has seemingly been on the mound in some of the decisive moments in the team’s checkered playoff history.
In his first playoff series with the Nats in 2016, he gave up four runs in six innings in Game 1 against the Dodgers. Then in Game 5, though he deserved more run support, he gave up the game-tying home run to Joc Pederson that kick-started the fateful four-run seventh.
The following year, nursing a hamstring injury heading into the playoffs, he was once again let down by his offense and the bullpen that followed him in a Game 3 loss. His famous Game 5 meltdown out of the bullpen came next, allowing four runs in the fifth inning.
It looked like he was going to follow a similar trend of not moving the needle while pitching in a Postseason loss when he allowed three runs in five innings of the Wild Card Game.
But before he became the picture of sadness for baseball in the nation’s capital again, especially given how polarizing the decision to start him was, his team rallied in the eighth and before he could blink his blue eye, the Nationals were heading to the NLDS.
It was the first time that Scherzer has pitched in a postseason game that his team won since Game 4 of the ALDS in 2013. And despite the underwhelming results, his stuff was still there.
“I felt great,” Scherzer said after the game. “The ball was really jumping out of my hand. Just ran a couple of bad pitches, that’s how close it can be.
“But man, it doesn’t matter, just find a way to keep grinding, kept it from getting out of control, avoid a big inning, and then [Strasburg] came in and did his thing. Shut the door three times. And then [Daniel Hudson] shuts the door to win it.”
After several instances of his team not backing up solid performances of his, it had to feel good to have the offense, Strasburg, and Hudson pick him up late, lifting a weight off his back.
Could that game have been a strange turning point for Scherzer, starting a new postseason narrative for the right-hander? If it is a new chapter, the next paragraph he delivered during an expected relief appearance on Friday has the inspire confidence.
Due to a lackluster bullpen, Dave Martinez is relying heavily on the elite starting pitching he’s blessed with. Friday was no different as Scherzer entering to protect a one-run lead in the eighth.
“When your number gets called,” Scherzer said following the game, “you got to go out there and produce and you’ve got to bring everything you’ve got.
“[Strasburg] did it out of the pen the other night, and then he delivered a great start tonight, so when your number gets called go out there and compete with everything you’ve got.”
Compete is an understatement for Scherzer’s inning of relief. He gritted his teeth, locked in his death stare, probably cursed a few times, and then ate Gavin Lux, Chris Taylor, and Joc Pederson alive, sitting them all down on strikes.
The combination of coming out in relief and postseason adrenaline led to some increased velocity, as his heater reached 99mph, his cutter touched 91mph, and his slider hit 89mph.
“For me, it’s just a mentality of just going out there with everything on the line,” Scherzer said of the increase in velocity. “The atmospheres I’ve pitched in, here with the Wild Card Game and then there on the road in Dodger Stadium, I mean, it’s been intense.
“So you’re going to get the best out of me. And there’s no regular season environment that I can replicate that.”
For the most part in his postseason career, the extra adrenaline has gotten to Scherzer.
For example, in the Wild Card Game, he walked Trent Grisham with high velocity but no command, setting up a two-run home run for Yasmani Grandal.
However, in Friday’s dominant relief outing, Scherzer was able to focus his emotions better.
“A lot calmer than the last time I shared a bullpen with him in 2017, the division series,” Sean Doolittle told reporters after the game. “That time he was pacing around and this time he was looser.”
“I was surprised because just his demeanor, he was very laid back...He was down there like a regular bullpen guy, keeping things loose and watching the game and staying ready. That was absolutely electric from him tonight.”
That looser attitude this time around was evident. The same electric stuff he displayed in the Wild Card Game was there, but he was much more in control of his stuff, concentrating his adrenaline despite the high-pressure situation at Dodger Stadium.
Even though the outing bumped his start back a day, he hopes it won’t affect him moving forward.
“Honestly doesn’t matter,” Scherzer said. “For me, you bring it whenever you’re told to bring it.
“This is the playoffs. You lay it on the line every single time you touch that field, so whenever I get the ball next I get the ball and just lay it on the line.”
Even though it was a high-stress situation, the actual work itself was the equivalent to a between-starts side-session. With two days of rest since then, there should be no issue.
The more glaring issue right now is his so-so career record in the postseason, as well his underwhelming finish to the regular season this year, which led to questions about whether he should’ve started the Wild Card Game.
Scherzer is going to have to flip some scripts under the lights tonight as he once again gets the ball in a huge game for the Nationals. Time to really test that Stay In The Fight mantra.