WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer made a room full of reporters and MLB officials break out in laughter on Monday night with understatement when asked if he would be available to pitch in Game 5 between the Nationals and Dodgers, at that point less than an hour after the final out of Game 4, in which he tossed 109 high-stress pitches in arguably the most important start of his career in Washington.
"I doubt it," he quipped.
Really, he didn't need to say anything at all. He had just battled a relentlessly deep Dodgers lineup for seven innings and had done a David Blaine impression to escape the final frame in one of the best postseason starts of his illustrious MLB career.
The Nationals entered Game 4 down 2-1 in the series with elimination looming and a bullpen as trustworthy as a feral cat. It seemed the only possible path to victory was getting an A-grade version of Scherzer, not the middling shell of his regular season self too often seen from him in the playoffs. They needed the Scherzer who struck out the side in Game 2 in L.A., not the one who served up two quick homers against the Brewers to begin the NL Wild Card game.
Early on in Monday night's start, doubts were raised when Scherzer craned his neck to watch a lightning bolt hit by Justin Turner that landed in the left field seats. Just three batters in, the Dodgers had a lead. The pack was hungry and seemed poised to pile on more.
Scherzer, though, dug deep. Despite lately not having his Cy Young stuff following an on-and-off back injury saga late in the regular season, he reached back and found just enough to counter and regain control. In the second inning, he worked around a Corey Seager leadoff double to put a zero on the scoreboard. His third inning went one, two, three.
The fourth inning again began with a hit, a single by Cody Bellinger, but by the end of the frame, he had found his strikeout stuff. Through his first three innings, he struck out only one batter, an unusual pace for a guy who has led the league in strikeouts three of the past four years and who has topped 200 strikeouts in eight straight seasons.
This is, after all, the man who once said: "strikeouts are sexy." Pitching to contact is not his game.
But he got there, into a strikeout rhythm, and once he did there was little resistance. From the second out of the fourth inning through the third out of the fifth, he struck out five of six batters and all of them on swinging strikes. His arsenal opened up for him and there was not much the Dodgers, despite being the best lineup in the National League, could do.
"I knew I had all the pitches working and was just trusting [catcher Kurt Suzuki]," Scherzer said."Whatever he was putting down I was willing to just execute and just stay within our game plan."
"He was just making pitches all night," Dodgers catcher Will Smith said. "He had his slider and changeup going straight in to the lefties and he was mixing his fastball in pretty good."
Scherzer zoomed through innings two through six and arrived at the seventh on only 82 pitches. This was a dream scenario for the Nationals, who needed desperately to avoid the middle part of their bullpen. Scherzer's job was to make it so Davey Martinez didn't have to even look in the direction of a Wander Suero, Fernando Rodney or Hunter Strickland (gasp). The Nationals wanted the ball to go from Scherzer to Sean Doolittle and that's exactly what happened.
But in order to make that transition possible, Scherzer had to claw his way out of trouble in the seventh. He needed 27 pitches to get through his final inning and a little luck to push him across the finish line.
He began the seventh with a quick flyout by Seager before loading the bases on a Matt Beaty single and a pair of walks to Gavin Lux and Will Smith. That set up a showdown with Chris Taylor which went eight pitches before Scherzer earned his seventh and final strikeout.
With two outs and the bases juiced, up walked Joc Pederson, a man who was born to crush baseballs. He hit 36 bombs during the regular season and entered Game 4 slugging .495 for his career in the postseason. Three years ago, also at Nationals Park, he smashed an opposite field homer off Scherzer in Game 5 of the NLDS, a solo shot that tied the game. It knocked Scherzer out and the Nationals eventually lost.
The Nationals had a five-run lead when he approached the plate on Monday night, but one swing by Pederson could have changed everything. And one swing nearly did.
Pederson roped a first-pitch fastball down the right field line that missed staying fair by no more than three inches. The ball skipped into the corner and may have cleared the bases if the Nationals hadn't caught a break.
Scherzer then delivered a changeup that got Pederson to ground out to second and end the inning unharmed. He had thrown 109 pitches and given the Nationals all he had left to ensure they would live to see at least one more game.
"My arm is hanging right now," Scherzer said. "That pushed me all the way to the edge and then some."
Scherzer's final line was one run allowed with four hits and three walks scattered across seven innings. He had seven strikeouts
Scherzer is now 35 years old and, until he suffered a rhomboid strain in July that proved to be stubborn, was pitching at a Cy Young-level. But the way the last two-plus months have gone have reminded everyone who watches Scherzer on a regular basis that the man is mortal, that he won't be a transcendent star in Major League Baseball forever.
He is pitching at somewhere south of 100 percent of his full abilities, perhaps dealing with more effects from the back injury than we have been led to believe. And he also entered Monday night carrying the weight of a rocky postseason career, one that has not matched his Hall of Fame exploits in the regular season.
In some ways, he was up against greater odds on Monday than he has ever been while pitching in a Nationals uniform. Hurdles continue to be thrown his way.
But in Game 4, against a vaunted Dodgers lineup, he stood stall and helped his team survive to see another game. Not bad for a weathered, wily veteran.
"We're a bunch of viejos, we're old guys," Scherzer said of he and his teammates. "Old guys can still do it."
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