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Max Scherzer’s next four starts will be his most important outings of the season

The Washington Nationals look like a team that could give any NL contender trouble in the postseason, but their ace’s health has been a significant question mark.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When Max Scherzer takes the mound against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, he’ll be doing so with a lot to prove.

In his three starts since being activated off the Injured List on Aug. 22, Scherzer has allowed seven earned runs in 14.1 innings (4.40 ERA) while working back to full strength. He didn’t make it past the fifth in either of his first two starts before throwing 90 pitches against the New York Mets in a six-inning effort on Tuesday.

”What I’m really hoping is that I’m able to go through my whole routine, and in this next start, really just crank up the intensity,” Scherzer told 106.7 The Fan prior to Tuesday’s start. “And then who knows what the pitch count would be. Hopefully it’s in the 90-to-100 pitch count range, but that would be a really good step forward if I’m able to do that.”

Oddly enough, the Nationals have won all three of his starts despite their ace not pitching at his best. But now that he’s had a few starts to ramp up his pitch count and get adjusted to facing major-league hitters again, the pressure is on Scherzer to perform like he’s expected to—especially on Sunday against the one team sitting above Washington in the NL East standings.

But it’s really not about the division race. Sure, the Nats and Braves still have five games left against each other and crazier things have happened in September than a team erasing an nine-game lead over the final three weeks of the season. But FanGraphs gives Washington just a 2.5% chance of winning the NL East, all but signaling a Wild-Card-or-bust scenario in D.C.

Scherzer is slated to make at least four more starts the rest of the season. If the current rotation holds, he’d be in line to start Game 162. That means the Nats will need to make a decision: start Scherzer on the final day of the regular season or hold him for the NL Wild Card Game. That’ll of course hinge on the Nats clinching a playoff spot prior to that game, which is far from guaranteed given the tough stretch of games Washington faces to close out the year.

If the Nats do have home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game secured, it’ll come down to how confident the team is sending Scherzer out in an elimination game. Pitching him in Game 162, however, would line him up to start Game 2 of the NLDS—should they get there—in Los Angeles while Stephen Strasburg would likely get the nod for the Wild Card Game so that Patrick Corbin could face the lefty-heavy Dodgers lineup in Game 1.

That’s an intriguing scenario, especially considering Strasburg’s strong second half—sans his nine-run fiasco in Arizona—and the Dodgers’ concerning splits against lefties. If the Nats win at least one game in LA after sending Corbin and Scherzer to the mound, they could start Strasburg in Game 3 with the series tied 1-1 and the chance to put LA away before the series goes back to Dodger Stadium (where they’re 55-18 this season) for Game 5.

And if the Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and/or Arizona Diamondbacks make things interesting over the next few weeks, the Nats might have to play things out that way anyway. With Scherzer already lined up to pitch Game 162 (at home against the Cleveland Indians), it’s unlikely Washington would try to mess with the rotation.

But that’s getting ahead of things. Scherzer has four starts to prove that he’s still capable of pitching like the ace who posted a 1.00 ERA with 68 strikeouts in June en route to winning NL Pitcher of the Month. He’s lined up to face the Braves twice before starting against the Miami Marlins on the road and the Phillies at home—all division rivals.

Scherzer is 3-3 with a 2.98 ERA and 12.4 K/9 against NL East foes this season but has allowed 4+ runs against them three times. Sunday will mark the first time he’s faced the Braves since Aug. 7, 2018, when he allowed one run over seven innings in an eventual 3-1 defeat.

He’s still in the thick of the NL Cy Young race, and a strong finish could propel him to his third award in four years after presumed favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu made things more interesting with his recent struggles.

But the most important thing on both Scherzer’s and the team’s minds is his status for the postseason. The Nationals are still looking to get over that playoff hump, and there are questions about whether this is their last chance to do it with this core due to a looming offseason that could see Washington lose both Strasburg and Anthony Rendon.

Scherzer has had three starts to get himself right. The time off he got as a result of two IL stints could actually prove to be a good thing, as he’ll be more rested for the postseason than he’s ever been as a National. But now is the time for him to show what he’s got left in the tank. His role in the team’s chase for the pennant depends on it.