Signature Scherzer gives Nationals shot to knock out Dodgers

WASHINGTON — Everything about the game screamed football. Especially the guy on the mound.

It was football season. It was football weather. It was even prime time on Monday night.

But the most football thing of all at Nationals Park was the dude on the hill, the one with the ball in his hands. The one who, like a workhorse, goal-line running back, just seemed to get stronger and stronger as the game wore on. He was the one in the middle of the huddle (stay tuned for more on that).

Max Scherzer has always been a bit of a football player in baseball player’s clothing. Not because he played quarterback at Parkview High back in St. Louis. Not because he geeks out over the sport to the point that he’s the commish of his team’s fantasy football league (his team is called “Hardware”). Not because you wouldn’t think twice if you saw him, at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, in a uniform featuring, instead of Washington Nationals red and blue, Redskins red and gold.

No, the most football thing about the dude who was the most football thing on Monday at Nats Park is what’s going on between his ears.

“There’s definitely a different animal in there,” said reliever Daniel Hudson, who had the audacity to finish what Scherzer started, picking up the save in Washington’s 6-1 win and sending the NL Division Series back to Los Angeles for a decisive Game 5 on Wednesday.

What kind of animal was Hudson talking about, exactly?

The kind that makes everyone — from teammates to friends to even family — sign a waiver in order to watch him throw his notoriously maniacal bullpen sessions between starts. The kind that can suffer a broken nose while practicing bunting, then go out the next day, black eye and all, and steamroller a division rival to the tune of 10 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings (this happened in June against the Phillies). Apparently, it’s also the same species that can pitch in high-leverage relief on Friday, then come back and start an elimination game on Monday.

At the outset, it looked like manager Davey Martinez might have been asking a little too much of his ace. The third batter of the game, Justin Turner, turned on a 95 mph fastball and sent it screaming over the wall in left-center to give L.A. a 1-0 lead. By the time Scherzer had gone through the Dodgers lineup once, he had allowed four batted balls with exit velocity of at least 95 mph. Perhaps even more un-Scherzerian, he hadn’t registered a single strikeout.

As it turns out, it was all part of the plan.

Like a quarterback whose first 15 plays are scripted, Scherzer was under strict orders early: Do whatever it takes to go as deep into the game as you possibly can. In fact, while the Nationals were getting pounded on Sunday in Game 3, Scherzer was approached in the dugout by Martinez, who told his hurler that no, you may not pinch hit, and no, you may not pinch run, and no, you may not pitch in relief (all of which Scherzer volunteered to do).

“You might pitch 140 pitches tomorrow,” Washington’s skipper said, knowing how perilously thin his beleaguered bullpen was, “so just get your rest.”

In other words, conserve your energy. Conserve it in the dugout on Sunday. Conserve it some more at home on Monday. But above all else, conserve it Monday night on the mound.

“I needed to make a full-on start,” said Scherzer, who lasted just five innings and 77 pitches against the Brewers in the wild-card game. Another start such as that would force Martinez to somehow cobble together 12 outs from that infamous bullpen against the mighty Dodgers — a scenario that would almost certainly result in doom.

“There’s been times — like, I know there’s times in the regular season — where you’re not fresh, where you come into a game, and you got to conserve,” Scherzer said. So that’s exactly what Washington’s ace did.

The first two innings against Los Angeles — the first time through the order — Scherzer threw 76% of his pitches in the strike zone, a rate well above his regular-season average for the first two frames (53%). To hell with whiffing guys: Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner who has more K’s than any other starter this decade, knew that pitching to contact and keeping his pitch count low (at least to start the game) would give him his best chance to go deep in the game. The strategy wasn’t without risk, as Turner’s homer and those other three early rockets showed, but Scherzer managed to get away with it relatively whole.

When the rain started coming down after the third inning, Scherzer was at a very manageable 39 pitches and had tallied one lonely strikeout (against L.A. starter Rich Hill). As the weather got worse, he got better. Like that workhorse running back who gradually wears down the opponent, Scherzer got stronger as the game went on. Or so it seemed. Really, he just stopped sandbagging.

“We needed a longer game out of him, so he paced himself a little bit,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “And as you could tell, toward the middle innings, he started to ramp it up a little bit.”

After throwing more than three-quarters of his pitches in the strike zone the first two innings, Scherzer worked in the zone less than half the time the rest of the way (44%). In doing so, he gave the Dodgers’ hitters fits. From the third inning through the sixth inning, the veteran righty retired 12 of the 13 batters he faced, striking out five of six at one point.

Then came the huddle.

With one out in the top of the seventh, pitching coach Paul Menhart paid a visit to the mound. By then, the rain had stopped, but Scherzer hadn’t. One pitch short of 100 on the night, he needed a breather — or at least that was Menhart’s intention. But the pitcher didn’t play along. As Menhart attempted to settle his pitcher, surrounded by Suzuki and the infielders, Scherzer paced around the mound, kicking at the dirt and shaking his head. The conversation lasted all of about 10 seconds.

“He told me he loved me,” Menhart said of the conversation after the game, deadpanning.

Added shortstop Trea Turner: “Great competitors don’t care to listen to anybody. Not to say that he wasn’t listening.”

But really, Scherzer wasn’t listening. Because you’d have to have energy to do that.

“I was just gassed,” he said. “I was out. I was emptying the tank, giving everything I got.”

Everything Scherzer had was 10 more pitches. Eight to Chris Taylor, who whiffed for the second out, and two to Joc Pederson, who grounded out to end the inning — but not before lacing the first pitch just barely foul down the right-field line. Said Scherzer: “I caught a break.”

Moments after catching that break, once Pederson grounded out and his night was finished, Scherzer stomped off the mound to a roaring ovation. In that moment, and on this night, he reminded everyone in DC — and beyond — that he is still very much a force to be reckoned with. That despite the injury and the relatively mortal recent body of work, despite Stephen Strasburg continuing to establish himself as one of the game’s most dominant postseason pitchers, Max Scherzer is still very much Max Scherzer.

And because of that, the Nationals are still very much alive.

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