LOS ANGELES - Max Scherzer didn’t even pause to think about it when asked Tuesday night about the significance of what takes place Thursday night in D.C.
“Yep, this is probably the biggest start of my career,” he said. “Biggest start of my life. 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 ... I’m not gonna shy away from it. This is the biggest start of my career.”
Scherzer, keep in mind, has started 11 previous postseason games in his career. And the list includes a World Series game in 2012 and a pair of American League Championship Series Game 6’s in 2011 and 2013.
He has never, however, started a winner-take-all postseason game. Which makes Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Thursday so significant to the veteran right-hander.
“You’re going to get their absolute best, their best effort from all season,” Scherzer said. “Just like we’re going to give our best effort that we’ve given all season. Man, what can you ask for? This is great.”
Nationals fans have to appreciate Scherzer’s enthusiasm and confidence on the eve of Game 5 against the Dodgers. But they also have a more nuanced understanding of the big picture here. Thursday night’s game isn’t just about settling this NLDS. It’s about exorcising the demons of previous NLDS failures in 2012 and 2014. It’s about sending this franchise to its first National League Championship Series since the Expos’ lone appearance in 1981. And it’s about breaking the longstanding curse of professional sports in Washington, where no major team has so much as reached the semifinals of its league in 18 years.
That’s what at stake at 8:08 p.m. Thursday on South Capitol Street, even if for Scherzer this is merely a do-or-die game against the Dodgers for the right to face the Cubs in the next round.
This will be the fifth time the Nationals have faced elimination in their brief postseason history. The previous four times, their starting pitcher was named Gio Gonzalez or Doug Fister or Ross Detwiler. With due respect to those three guys, Scherzer is an entirely different beast.
This is why the Nationals signed Scherzer to the most lucrative contract ever bestowed upon a free agent pitcher. He can’t earn all of his $210 million in this one start, but he sure can earn a nice chunk of it.
“Great feeling to have him rested and have him ready to go,” shortstop Danny Espinosa said. “Great pitcher, one of the greatest in baseball. To have him on our side going out there, very confident behind him.”
The Dodgers are expected to counter with Rich Hill, the veteran lefty who gave up four runs in 4 1/3 innings Sunday in Game 2 and now will be pitching on short rest. He’ll be backed up by 20-year-old rookie left-hander Julio Urias.
So, yes, that’s a significant advantage on paper for the Nationals. Whether that translates into an actual advantage on the field remains to be seen.
It also remains to be seen whether Scherzer can make the necessary adjustments to avoid his less-than-perfect outing in Game 1 of this series, when the Dodgers pounced on him for four runs in the first three innings before he settled down and completed six innings.
“I feel like I made some mistakes, but I’m sure they felt like they missed some pitches,” Scherzer said. “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. It’s going to be a heck of a ballgame.”
Maybe even the biggest ballgame of his career.