Max Scherzer was cruising. After a shaky start to his night that included a leadoff homer in the first and a pair of doubles off the center field wall in the third, the Nationals ace had retired 11 of the last 13 Diamondbacks batters he'd faced, eight of them via strikeout.
But with the Nats trailing by two runs in the bottom of the sixth and the pitcher's spot due up, Dusty Baker did what he had to do: He pulled Scherzer back and sent Wilmer Difo to the plate as a pinch-hitter, despite some wavering back and forth in his mind.
"I was contemplating on letting him stay in the game, and we talked about it," Baker said. "Then I said: 'No, we'll go with a pinch-hitter.' And then I said: 'No, let's try to bunt him over to tie the score up.' And I also said no to myself."
Eventually, Baker settled on Difo pinch-hitting for Scherzer, even though it would now require at least a three-run rally that inning to give Scherzer a shot at his 19th win of the season tonight and thus a shot at win No. 20 in Sunday's finale against the Marlins.
Fast-forward four more batters, when Anthony Rendon crushed a three-run homer to left that indeed put the Nationals on top and put Scherzer in position for the win, and ... well, the emotions spilled out for Baker.
The manager started walking toward Scherzer at the other end of the dugout, pointing and shouting. The two exchanged a high-five and then embraced, slapping each other on the back.
"Rendon with the bomb, that just kind of sent it over the top," Scherzer said. "Dusty was out of his mind. If there's anybody that's going to lose their mind, I'll lose your mind with you. That's what made it fun."
And what were the two saying to each other in that moment?
"Just a lot of four-letter words," Scherzer said. "We were both pumped up."
The entire Nationals dugout had good reason to be excited. They entered that sixth inning with zero hits registered against Arizona right-hander Matt Koch, making his first career start. They were in danger of dropping two straight to the last-place Diamondbacks and potentially seeing their lead over the Dodgers for home field advantage in next week's National League Division Series evaporate.
And then, in rapid fire, they mounted the rally that lifted them to a 4-2 victory and ended an especially sour 24 hours on a high note.
Having officially learned earlier in the day that catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee Monday night, the Nationals looked like a somber bunch most of the evening. By game's end, they were back in good spirits, ready to take on the challenge of a postseason without one of their All-Stars.
"I think it was a little bit of mixed emotions," Rendon said. "Definitely frustration. You never like to see a teammate get hurt. We always have to worry, and obviously he's going to be missed. He's a big part of this lineup. But we have a lot of good guys who can fill in. It's going to be awesome to watch."
Rendon will be among those asked to deliver big hits in Ramos' absence. He has been on a tear since the All-Star break and now has 19 homers and 84 RBIs on the season. He also has 500 career hits thanks to his big blast tonight, which earned the third baseman a curtain call from the crowd of 24,297.
"It was pretty cool," Rendon said. "It's definitely humbling, too. It doesn't happen too often, so enjoy it."
The Nationals' sixth-inning surge at the plate turned Scherzer's night around as well. The right-hander, trying to solidify his case for Cy Young Award honors, knows the significance of his two starts this week.
He now has 19 wins to go along with a 2.82 ERA, an NL-high 223 1/3 innings pitched and an MLB-high 277 strikeouts, which happen to top his club-record mark of 276 from one year ago.
Scherzer will next take the mound Sunday afternoon, but he has a much more important start on his mind right now: His expected showdown with Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of the NLDS, with a potential rematch on tap if the series goes the full five games.
"I know the 19 wins, yada, yada yada, but the most important thing is the team wins," Scherzer said. "I would love to have Game 5 here at Nationals Park facing the Dodgers. In a short series, home field advantage matters. We need to go out and get hot and get moving in the right direction and take care of home field advantage, because it's ours to lose."
If that happens, perhaps there will be more dugout embraces between Baker and Scherzer before this season is over. Though it would be tough to find a more emotional one than what was on display tonight.
"I got emotional, because I could hear my dad talking to me," Baker said. "My dad would always tell me in situations: 'Always do the right thing.' And I thought that was the right thing, to go for the win to give Max a chance to win his 19th. It gives him a chance to win 20. That's what the emotion was about. Sometimes I wish my dad would talk to me more and tell me what to do."