CHICAGO - With the best-of-five National League Division Series tied at a game apiece, the Nationals headed to Wrigley Field to face José Quintana, the Cubs’ fourth starter. Their counterpunch? Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer.
The Nationals ace was pushed back to start Game 3 of the series due to right hamstring tightness. Heading into the game, there were many question marks surrounding the right-hander, including whether he would be able to last deep into the game without succumbing to fatigue or pain.
Spoiler alert: He was the Scherzer everyone has come to expect every fifth day.
“He looked like the guy that keeps winning Cy Youngs,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said.
While the Nats went on to fall to the Cubs 2-1, Scherzer was dominant. He entered the seventh inning with a no-hit bid intact.
“He was dominating us, there’s no two ways about it,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo admitted.
After striking out catcher Willson Contreras to lead off the seventh, Scherzer surrendered his first hit, a double left field by Ben Zobrist on an 0-1 pitch.
“Got a 1-0 ballgame going to the seventh, game’s on the line,” Scherzer said. “Every pitch, I’m just trying to stay within myself. Stay within (my) game plan with (Matt) Wieters and just execute pitches.
“I was able to get ahead on Contreras, just took my chances with fastballs up in that situation. And was able to execute. ... Then with Zobrist, I just missed my curveball 0-0. Went fastball away, and did a good job putting the bat on the ball and hit it in the gap.”
Scherzer, who said in his media availability before Game 3 that he was fully expecting to throw 100 pitches, was then taken out of the game as manager Dusty Baker opted for left-hander Sammy Solís.
While it appeared Scherzer was campaigning to stay in the game with 98 pitches under his belt, he said after the game that it was the right decision to go with the lefty out of the bullpen.
“I had all the adrenaline I need,” Scherzer said. “We were all kinda 50/50 on what was going to happen. Kinda looked at Wieters. Sometimes, he can be, the catcher can be kinda the deciding factor on how everything’s coming out. He kinda looked at it and thought that Sammy Solís was the best option for us.”
After Solís entered the game to face Kyle Schwarber, Cubs manager Joe Maddon countered with right-handed pinch-hitter Albert Almora Jr. Solís actually had better numbers against right-handers during the regular season, holding them to a .218 average.
“I know you guys are probably going to second-guess that (call to the bullpen), but these guys are here to make a decision,” Scherzer said. “When they made that decision, I wasn’t going to override anybody. These are pressure-packed situations. They’ve done their homework and they’ve done their job to come up with the best scenario in that situation. Dusty has done that situation for us, that’s everybody on the staff making that decision. ... When they made that decision, I was behind it as well.
“I was juiced out of my mind with adrenaline.”
On his seventh pitch, Solís surrendered the game-tying single to Almora, with Jason Heyward following up with another single before Baker made the call to bring in Brandon Kintzler. The game-winner came in the eighth inning on Rizzo’s bloop single off Oliver Pérez that landed in the Bermuda Triangle in short left-center, eluding shortstop Trea Turner, left fielder Jayson Werth and center fielder Michael A. Taylor.
“That’s playoff baseball,” Scherzer said.” That’s what can happen. Every pitch mattered. Everybody was on pins and needles every single pitch. Just one little thing can change a game. Today, that ball fell in for them. (Rizzo) did a good job of staying through the ball and allowing that to happen.”
Leading up to his start, Scherzer was able to make a tweak in his delivery that allowed him to pitch “mechanically sound.”
“Today, I was able to make a mechanical tweak in how I deliver, in how I was able to get off the rubber with my right foot,” he said. “I was able to get the foot up higher quicker, and that alleviated stress on part of the hamstring that was aching.”
Playing behind Scherzer, right fielder Bryce Harper said the Nats ace “had everything going for him.”
“For him to cowboy up and do what he’s be doing all year long and then come out here and doing what he did today,” Harper said. “He deserves to win, it just didn’t happen today.”
While the good news is that Scherzer made it through the game confident that his hamstring injury is behind him, the Nats now find themselves with their backs against the wall after wasting another strong start. They mustered just three hits in the loss and now find themselves down 2-1 in the series and set to face the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta, who has been battling a hamstring injury similar to Scherzer’s.
If the Nats can take the win-or-go home Game 4 and bring the series back to D.C., Scherzer stated with an emphatic “yes” that he would be available out of the bullpen.
But in order see him come out of the ‘pen in Game 5, Scherzer offered a simple gameplan: “Win the game. What else you want us to do? We’re going to win the game.”