About 50 media members engulfed Washington starter-turned-setup-man Max Scherzer at his corner locker in the visiting clubhouse of Dodger Stadium late Friday night, partially blocking a hallway leading to the shower area.
“He pitched one inning guys,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said, his voice dripping with incredulity as he squeezed past the scrum. “One inning.”
Yeah, one inning that could dramatically alter the course of a best-of-five playoff series that Washington tied one game apiece with a nail-biter of a 4-2 victory over the Dodgers on Friday night. Whether that potentially seismic shift helps or hurts the Nationals in the long run is to be determined.
Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, was scheduled to start Game 3 in Nationals Park on Sunday night before he entered Game 2 in the eighth inning and struck out the side — Gavin Lux, pinch-hitter Chris Taylor and Joc Pederson — on 14 pitches, including five fastballs clocked at 98-99 mph.
That was a huge boost to a thin bullpen that appears to contain two relievers manager Davey Martinez trusts — left-hander Sean Doolittle, who gave up a home run to Max Muncy in the seventh inning Friday night, and closer Daniel Hudson, who struck out Corey Seager with the bases loaded to end the game.
But Scherzer’s much-needed relief effort put his Game 3 start in jeopardy. The Nationals flew home from Los Angeles on Saturday and hadn’t decided on a Game 3 starter as of Saturday night.
“We’ll see,” Martinez said after Friday night’s game. “I talked to Max [after the game]. I’m going to see how he feels.”
If Scherzer can’t pitch Sunday, he would start Game 4 on Monday night with Stephen Strasburg, who was dominant in six one-run, three-hit, 10-strikeout innings Friday night, lined up to start Game 5 on regular rest.
The Game 3 start would go to veteran right-hander Anibal Sanchez, with left-hander Patrick Corbin, who started Game 1, available in relief.
“I’m going to sit back [Friday] night and think about a bunch of different things and wake up [Saturday] and get on a plane and think about a bunch of different things,” Martinez said, “and then we’ll be ready to go.”
Scherzer was clearly ready to go Friday night. He scrapped his between-starts bullpen workout so he would be available in relief, and after asking Doolittle in a tunnel behind the dugout for directions to the right-field bullpen, he joined the relief corps in the fifth or sixth inning.
“I told the coaches after batting practice that I’m good to go,” Scherzer said. “I’ve been in these situations before, where you’re pitching on two days’ rest, in All-Star games and different situations. And I know that on two days’ rest, you’ve got one inning in you. I feel I can go one inning and recover from that.”
Martinez told Scherzer he would use him in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning, “and I specifically told him I will not use him in the ninth,” Martinez said. “That ninth inning is a beast.”
Hudson, who survived Justin Turner’s leadoff double in the ninth inning, a two-out intentional walk to Muncy and a four-pitch walk to Will Smith, had a feeling Scherzer would deliver.
“You could see it in Max’s eyes, he was gonna go out there and dominate,” Hudson said. “He’s a different animal out of the pen. With that adrenaline late in the game, it’s fun to watch him work out there.”
So much so that Martinez, after watching Scherzer dispatch the Dodgers with ease, briefly considered bringing him back for the ninth.
“Oh, trust me, I was biting my lip, scratching my head,” Martinez said. “But like I said, Hudson’s been our guy, especially in big moments for us in the ninth. I just liked him right there.”
The usually feisty Scherzer did not fight the decision.
“I thought, if I were to go out there and pitch the ninth, it would really be taxing, given the situation and the moment,” Scherzer said. “That could hinder how effective I could be in the future, considering everything at play. We have Huddy. Huddy is a closer. Let him close.”
Scherzer’s last postseason relief appearance did not go as well. He entered the fifth inning of the fifth and deciding game of a 2017 Division Series against the Chicago Cubs and had an outing that almost defies explanation.
The Cubs scored four two-out runs against Scherzer during a rally in which four consecutive batters reached without a hit — an intentional walk, a third-strike passed ball, a catcher’s interference and a hit by pitch.
Scherzer was asked last week what he remembered most from that inning.
“The dumbest rule in baseball,” Scherzer said with a smirk, “is that you can strike out and still get to first base.”
No Dodgers hitters reached base against Scherzer on Friday night, the second dominant relief appearance by a Nationals starter in three playoff games. Strasburg threw three scoreless innings in relief of Scherzer in the wild-card win over Milwaukee on Tuesday night.
“When your number gets called, you’ve got to go out there and produce and bring everything you got,” Scherzer said. “[Strasburg] did it out of the pen the other night, and he had a really great start. So when your number gets called, go out there and compete with everything you got.”
Martinez can lean on his starters for relief in the Division Series but knows that approach isn’t sustainable for an entire postseason. If the Nationals advance, they’ll need quality relief work from the likes of Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland, Fernando Rodney, Wander Suero and Doolittle.
“It takes 25 guys to win every day, right?” Martinez said. “We wouldn’t be here without those nine or 10 guys in the bullpen. They’ve had their struggles … but those guys in the bullpen, they understand they’ve got to pitch well. They get it.”