Scherzer vs. Kershaw: "I don't expect for it to be a blowout"

Sometimes a postseason series matchup doesn't have to be hyped up any more than with a simple mention of last names. Schilling vs. Clemens. Halladay vs. Carpenter. Bumgarner vs. Syndergaard.

And now ... Scherzer vs. Kershaw.

It would be difficult to conjure up a better pitching showdown for Game 1 of the National League Division Series than the one that will be on display later this afternoon at Nationals Park.

Clayton Kershaw is a three-time Cy Young Award winner, an MVP and just put together one of the greatest seasons in pitching history if not for the 2 1/2 months he spent on the disabled list with a herniated disc in his back.

Max Scherzer is a Cy Young Award winner, a four-time All-Star, a two-time 20-game winner and the leader among all major league pitchers in strikeouts since 2012. (Second place on that list? Kershaw, naturally.)

"So I don't expect for it to be a blowout tomorrow," Kershaw said, "by any means."

No, runs are almost certainly going to be at a premium in this one, with two of the game's very best going toe to toe and trying to set the tone for each club's postseason run.

max-scherzer-pitching-20-strikeouts-sidebar.pngThis is why the Nationals signed Scherzer to a record $210 million contract 19 months ago. Yes, they already had Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann in their rotation. But Scherzer, at least in the mind of general manager Mike Rizzo, was a cut above. He was the guy you wanted to take the ball for the most important games in October.

"It's what I envisioned when I drafted him way back in the day," said Rizzo, who was Diamondbacks scouting director when Arizona made Scherzer the 11th overall pick in 2006, just one month before Rizzo was hired by the Nationals. "He attacks. He's in attack mode. He's an aggressive pitcher. He's the guy that you want to give the ball to in the most crucial situations. Through his experiences during tremendous regular seasons and the in playoffs, he's come as advertised and the guy that we really count on to be the man for us."

It's one thing for a GM or manager to want to give a guy the ball for games like it. It's another for the pitcher himself to want the ball in these situations. And make no mistake, Scherzer wants it.

"It's what you play the game for," he said. "You don't measure yourself against the worst. You measure yourself against the best. And I think this is the best opponent I could possibly face with the Dodgers and Kershaw throwing."

There was, of course, no question who would be on the mound for the Dodgers: the man universally regarded as the best pitcher in the game over the last half-decade.

"I've seen him on the other side a lot, and he's beat many of the teams that I was on the opposite end of," said first-year Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts. "To see him on the day to day is really impressive. You know, there's no other person I'd rather have on the mound tomorrow night."

It actually wasn't always a given Kershaw would be available for this outing. The back injury that sidelined him from late June through early September threatened to require surgery and cancel the rest of his season altogether.

Kershaw wound up making five tune-up starts down the stretch, and he picked up right where he left off, with a 1.29 ERA. But the Dodgers took it easy with him, letting him slowly build up his arm and never letting him throw more than 91 pitches.

The lefty insists he's where he needs to be physically entering the postseason.

"At first, when you're coming back from an injury, ... while you're obviously competing out there, in the back of your head you're like: 'Am I going to hurt it again?' " he said. "I had that, for sure, the first couple times out there.

"The last two or three starts, I really haven't thought about it. My work in between is as close to normal as it's going to be. So I really haven't thought about, you know, re-injuring or anything like that. I feel as close to 100 percent as anybody else is at this time of year right now."

There is much to fear about Kershaw as an opposing hitter - the repertoire, the mound presence, the workload - but perhaps nothing defines him more than his remarkable ability to throw the ball over the plate without throwing hittable pitches.

Kershaw issued only 11 walks in 149 innings this season, the lowest walk rate by any National League pitcher with at least that many innings since 1920.

"I think that's probably the first and foremost thing, that he's attacking you with all of his stuff," Scherzer said. "He's not going to walk anybody. I think that's probably the most impressive thing."

What impresses Kershaw the most about Scherzer?

"He's a tremendous competitor," the lefty said. "I mean, he always wants the ball. He's always fired up for big games. And then the stuff, I think, is probably the second thing. His fastball is one of the best fastballs, if not the best fastball, from a starter that you'll see."

Put that all together and you get the latest in a string of high-profile postseason pitching matchups. What more could anyone ask for?

"There's no secret to it: (Kershaw) is really good at what he does, and he's been very good for a long time," Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He's not an easy guy to face in Game 1. But we've got a pretty good guy, too."

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