Manager Dusty Baker made the official announcement of Strasburg as his starter for Friday night’s opener against the Cubs this morning, minutes before his club took the field for its final workout in preparation for the series.
The choice of Strasburg wasn’t a surprise, not in the wake of Scherzer’s attempts in the last few days to recover from a tweaked right hamstring that wasn’t going to allow him to take the mound for Game 1 without cause for concern.
The pertinent question in the days since has been whether or not Scherzer will be able to start Game 2 on Saturday. The answer came early this afternoon, when Gio Gonzalez - not Scherzer - threw off the bullpen mound at Nationals Park, setting up the left-hander to pitch Game 2 instead of the ace.
A source familiar with the Nationals’ decision then confirmed what had become clear: Gonzalez will start Game 2, with Scherzer now aiming to start Game 3 in Chicago.
Baker had suggested late this morning that the decision had not yet been made, that it wouldn’t be made until after Scherzer took the bullpen mound and tested his hamstring.
“A lot of it depends on how he looks and how he feels,” Baker said. “We’ll let you know later.”
But Scherzer never did enter the bullpen. He threw off flat ground for about 10-to-15 minutes and finished with a fist pump, suggesting he was pleased with the session. He then spoke at length with director of athletic training Paul Lessard in the right field corner, all while Gonzalez made his way to the bullpen to throw off the mound, the typical prep for any pitcher two or three days before a start.
Scherzer, according to the source, wanted to pitch Game 2 but the Nationals decided it wasn’t worth pushing him that quickly, opting instead to prepare him to pitch Game 3 on Monday at Wrigley Field.
The Nationals recognize the significance of the timing of Scherzer’s start. If he was able to go in Game 2, he would be lined up to pitch a potential do-or-die Game 5 on normal rest. If he doesn’t go until Game 3, that would be his lone start of the series.
“I mean, we realize if he pitched Game 2, then he could probably pitch Game 5 if necessary,” Baker said. “We realize that. But is that worth taking a chance? If you get past the first round, then you’re going to jeopardize him the second round. So you have to kind of weigh both. But the health of Max, I think, is No. 1.”
Strasburg is hardly a poor fallback option for the Nationals in Game 1. The right-hander just won National League Pitcher of the Month honors in September, and over his last seven starts he is 5-0 with an 0.57 ERA.
This will be only Strasburg’s second career postseason start, the club having shut him down in 2012, his elbow then having been injured in 2016. He did pitch Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS against the Giants and allowed two runs (one earned) in five innings, charged with the loss.
Baker informed Strasburg this morning of this assignment and wasn’t surprised when the notoriously straight-faced 29-year-old had little reaction.
“I called him in before I got (to the press conference room) and I said, ‘Hey man, you’re starting Game 1. You probably figured that,’ ” Baker said. “He had that same look when he left my office as when he came in. It’s the truth. Anybody who knows him ... I thought he was going to be like, ‘Yeah!’ So he was extremely happy.”