Though the Cubs formally announced their entire rotation plan for the series, the Nats have not yet even confirmed who is starting Game 1 on Friday night and certainly not any plans beyond that.
There are, essentially, two possible reasons for the holdup: 1) They’re showing some gamesmanship with the Cubs, leaving them in the dark as they prepare for the series, or 2) They honestly aren’t sure yet when Scherzer is going to be ready to pitch.
The latter reason carries a lot more weight. Though Scherzer has made progress since tweaking his right hamstring in the fourth inning Saturday night against the Pirates, he has not yet passed the critical test of his leg required before he can be slotted into a starting assignment: throwing off the bullpen mound.
Scherzer hoped to do that today. At least, that’s what he conveyed he hoped to do when speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon. He wound up only throwing off flat ground in the outfield, though he did throw with some added force than he did the previous day, and completed the 10-minute session with a fist pump and a look of encouragement.
Scherzer did not, however, speak to reporters today; he wasn’t present in the clubhouse during the media’s 35-minute availability period. Manager Dusty Baker also didn’t address the media today, which had been planned regardless of his ace’s situation.
General manager Mike Rizzo, meanwhile, offered up what has become the company line with regards to Scherzer over the last 48 hours: He’s definitely pitching sometime in the NLDS, they’re just not saying when yet.
“We haven’t made the decision of when we’re going to pencil him in yet, as far as where he’s going to pitch in the rotation here in the playoffs,” Rizzo said. “Suffice it to say, he’s going to pitch in the playoffs here against the Cubs. It just depends on how he feels, which game we’re going to implement him in.”
This much can be said with certainty: Scherzer won’t be starting Game 1. In order to do that, he would have needed to throw off the bullpen mound today at the latest. Stephen Strasburg is set to start Friday night’s opener, though the Nationals won’t make that official until Thursday.
“We haven’t confirmed that yet,” Rizzo said. “But he’s certainly a capable No. 1 starter in the playoffs. We feel good about running him out there if he were the guy. And who better? We have two aces, and one of them will pitch Game 1.”
That leaves Scherzer or Gio Gonzalez to start Game 2, and the answer to that question should come during Thursday’s workout at Nationals Park. One of those two will need to throw off the bullpen mound in order to prepare to start two days later. Whichever one does figures to be on the mound Saturday.
There isn’t a much significant difference between pitching Game 1 or 2, but there is a significant difference between pitching Game 2 or 3. Given the NLDS schedule, with two off-days for travel, a manager has the option to bring back either of his first two starters for a potential do-or-die Game 5. A Game 3 starter, however, would only get two days’ rest and thus would be limited to one start in the series.
So why would the Nationals consider holding Scherzer back to Monday’s game at Wrigley Field, if there’s an opportunity to get him two starts in this best-of-five series?
“The reason for holding him back would be the concern on the hamstring,” Rizzo said. “We want him to be as close to 100 percent as we can get for him to pitch.”
Scherzer said Tuesday he feels his hamstring only when he’s throwing at full velocity off a mound, no other times. The concern would be the risk of causing more significant damage if he takes the mound too soon.
It’s a concern the Cubs know themselves. Jake Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner, has been battling his own hamstring issue for several weeks. As a result, Chicago’s front office and coaching staff announced today they’ll be holding the right-hander back until Game 4 at Wrigley Field (a game that isn’t even guaranteed to be necessary).
“We moved Jake to the back just to make sure we give the leg as much time as possible to heal,” manager Joe Maddon told reporters at Wrigley Field.
With ace left-hander Jon Lester having struggled himself down the stretch, Maddon will instead send the less-heralded Kyle Hendricks to the mound for Game 1. Hendricks has pitched the best of anyone in Chicago’s rotation over the second half of the season, and he delivered big for the Cubs in their pennant-clinching win over the Dodgers last October, but the right-hander doesn’t possess the track record of his rotation mates.
Lester is now slated to follow Hendricks in Game 2 at Nationals Park, with fellow lefty José Quintana (making his postseason debut) starting Game 3 at Wrigley Field.