LOS ANGELES — The bad news? The Washington Nationals lost an absolute heartbreaker in Game 4. The good news? They’ll have Max Scherzer on the hill for Game 5.
On Tuesday, in a roller-coaster National League Division Series contest that featured more twists and turns than the Pacific Coast Highway, the Nationals scratched out three seventh-inning runs (all charged to Clayton Kershaw) to tie it up. But an inning later, the Los Angeles Dodgers mounted a two-out rally off the previously impermeable Washington bullpen to produce the game-winning run.
It was the kind of demoralizing defeat that could easily take the wind out of a team’s sails. Heck, this one was so agonizing, it could take the canvas and the mast along with it, too. Except for this: In the visiting clubhouse, as the Nationals quietly packed their bags and prepared to fly back east on Wednesday, they did so knowing that they’ll have their best pitcher — and one of the best in baseball — on the mound Thursday in their most important game of the year.
While the Dodgers, backs to the wall in an elimination game, burned their ace on Tuesday, the Nationals still have Scherzer up their collective sleeve. And they couldn’t be happier about it.
“Great feeling,” said shortstop Danny Espinosa, whose leadoff single started the Nats’ seventh-inning rally. “To have him rested and have him ready to go, great pitcher. One of the greatest in baseball. So to have him on our side going out there, [we’re] very confident behind him.”
“Max is one of the greatest in the game just like they threw the same thing at us today,” said reliever Blake Treinen, who’s been a key member of Washington’s standout relief corps, but who got the loss on Tuesday. “It’s nice to know that we have Max on the mound, and we’ll have everybody healthy and strong and ready to go for this next game. A day off will be nice. And we get back in front of our fans.”
Of course, the last time Nats fans watched Scherzer start at home, things didn’t work out so well. In Game 1 of the NLDS, Scherzer allowed four runs on five hits — including two bombs — in six innings and got hung with the L. But that was with Kershaw opposing him. This time around, the Dodgers are likely to go with Rich Hill.
As good as Hill has been this year, he’s still a 36-year-old journeyman who’s been dealing with a persistent blister issue and will be pitching on short rest and who was employed by an Independent League team called the Long Island Ducks as recently as last year. Surely, he and the Dodgers don’t stand a chance against a former Cy Young winner who this year was the NL’s only 20-game winner and tied a big league record by fanning 20 batters in nine innings and might very well win another one of those Cy Young things come next month. Or do they?
“I mean, we beat him once already,” said Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, dismissing the notion that his team is done. “We know we can do it. We put some pretty good at-bats against him in Game 1, and we’re confident that we can do that again.”
Said Scherzer: “I feel like I made some mistakes, but I’m sure they felt like they missed some pitches. That’s the way it goes. There’s going to be adjustments on both sides of how each team’s going to combat each other, and it’s going to be a heck of a ballgame. You gotta go out there and absolutely lay everything on the line, and I know the rest of the guys in this locker room are gonna do that.”
What the end result will be remains to be seen. In the meantime, Scherzer couldn’t be more geeked about having the opportunity.
“Biggest start of my life,” Scherzer said after Game 4. “I’ve said that a handful of times throughout my career. How you handle that, going out there and using the emotion of that scenario, that everything’s on the line, and look — I’m not gonna shy away from it: This is the biggest start of my career.”
When asked what the previous biggest start of his life was, the 32-year-old righty thought for a second and then offered up Game 6 of the 2013 American League Championship Series, when his Detroit Tigers came in on the verge of being eliminated by the Boston Red Sox, who had a 3-2 lead in the series.
For the record, Scherzer didn’t exactly crush it that day. He walked five, allowed three runs in six-plus innings, and took the loss in a game that sent his team packing. That outing came on an extra day’s rest (five instead of four), just as he’ll be starting Thursday’s Game 5 on an extra day’s rest. He’s fully expecting to need every ounce of saved-up fuel.
“You’re going to get their absolute best, their best effort from all season,” said Scherzer. “Just like we’re going to give our best effort that we’ve given all season. Man, what more can you ask for?”
If you’re the Nationals, with your ace starting the biggest game of the year, not too much.