Scherzer getting "precautionary" MRI for hamstring cramp

Anyone who has been watching the Nationals for at least the last two months has known the results of any one particular game have not mattered much for a team that essentially had locked up a postseason berth long before it officially clinched on Sept. 10.

One thing - and only one thing - truly has mattered for the Nationals during this homestretch: Keeping everybody of significance healthy.

So when Max Scherzer was pulled with one out in the top of the fourth tonight for reasons that weren't immediately clear to anyone among the crowd of 32,240 at Nationals Park, the collective breath-holding throughout the area was enough to momentarily reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the air.

max-scherzer-stare.jpgBy night's end, once it was revealed Scherzer had a cramp in his right hamstring but was sent for a precautionary MRI, there was plenty of exhaling throughout the region. Then again, until Scherzer takes the mound again, whether for Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday or some subsequent game in that showdown with the Cubs, there will at least be some cause for worry among a fan base that has seen too many previous postseason runs stymied by a roster that was less than 100 percent healthy.

"We took him out for precaution," manager Dusty Baker said following his team's 4-1 loss to the Pirates, in which fill-in closer Brandon Kintzler gave up all four runs with two outs in the ninth. "We gotta make it to the playoffs healthy. So we thought it was better that we make that move, the precautionary move, to get him ready."

Scherzer is as forthcoming with reporters as anyone on the roster when it comes to explaining his physical ailments, often offering the public comfort when he's not seriously hurt. That was the case three previous times since Aug. 1 when the right-hander either needed to leave a game early or have his scheduled start scratched at the last minute due to minor issues involving his neck or his left calf.

Scherzer, though, was not available to provide any kind of reassurances after this one because he had already left Nationals Park to get the MRI by the time reporters entered following the game. Thus, all we have to go off of are the words of his manager and teammates who were nearby when things went awry in the top of the fourth.

Scherzer had been cruising, retiring 10 of the first 11 Pittsburgh batters he faced. But he landed awkwardly upon throwing his 54th pitch of the night, a 2-2 changeup that sailed high and away from Josh Bell, then started stretching his right leg a bit before re-taking his position on the mound.

There wasn't any immediate reaction from anybody in the dugout, but members of the Nationals infield noticed something wasn't right.

"He threw a pitch, and I didn't know if he, like, slipped on the dirt," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It obviously looked awkward. So I went up there and asked him: 'Are you alright?' And he said: "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm fine.' "

It didn't take long after that before the entire infield converged around Scherzer, with Baker, pitching coach Mike Maddux and director of athletic training Paul Lessard leaving the dugout to join them.

"I actually didn't see anything on the pitch," catcher Matt Wieters said. "Normally, I'll see if something was a little bit strange. But I must have been catching it when the rest of the infield saw something, because I saw the other four guys coming in there. That's what I wanted to go out there and check on."

Scherzer tried to insist he was fine and could continue. Baker and his fellow decision makers decided that in the fourth inning of Game 161, with nothing at stake right now but everything at stake a week from now, there was no reason to take any chance.

Scherzer handed over the ball and retreated to the dugout, where he grabbed a quick drink and then headed down the stairs toward the clubhouse.

"He didn't want to come out," Baker said. "We thought it was best. Max never wants to come out. We thought it was best for him, and us, for him to go out."

Thus concluded another dominant season for the 33-year-old ace, one that could earn him the third Cy Young Award of his career (second straight). Scherzer's final 2017 numbers: a 16-6 record and 2.51 ERA in 31 starts, with a league-high 268 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings, plus a league-low 0.90 WHIP. His chief competition, Clayton Kershaw, finished 18-4 with a 2.31 ERA in 27 starts, striking out 202 batters in 175 innings, with an 0.95 WHIP.

The pertinent question tonight, though was this: Had the exact same thing happened next week, in a game of far more consequence, would the Nationals have left Scherzer in the game?

"In a bigger situation, he probably could have stayed in the game," Baker said.

The Nationals certainly hope they aren't confronted with that dilemma again in 2017.

With Doolittle held out, Kintzler can't close out ...
Scherzer pulled in fourth with apparent leg issue ...

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