The Nationals aren't making any official declarations about their rotation order for the National League Division Series yet. But plenty of tea leaves were thrown out there today for the masses to read, and the most logical interpretation of those leaves says the club is planning to start Stephen Strasburg in Game 1 and then Max Scherzer in Game 2 ... with one important caveat.
The key scene during today's workout at Nationals Park - the first of three the club will hold before finally opening postseason play Friday night against the Cubs - involved Strasburg throwing off the bullpen mound while Scherzer threw off flat ground some 50 feet away in right field.
Pitchers typically throw in the bullpen two or three days before their next start. Thus, Strasburg's mound session today suggested he's preparing to start Friday night in the NLDS opener.
Scherzer, meanwhile, reported no issues during his throwing session today but said the real test of his tweaked right hamstring will come when he gets on the bullpen mound Wednesday. If that session goes well, he would be on track to start Game 2 on Saturday. If not, the Nationals would have to make an adjustment.
"We really haven't decided exactly," manager Dusty Baker said. "We have a couple days to decide. Stras threw a pen. Max is supposed to throw one, hopefully, tomorrow. We'll see. And then we will make a determination sometime prior to game time."
Scherzer admitted he still doesn't know when exactly he'll be starting against the Cubs, but he made it abundantly clear the hamstring issue will not prevent him from starting sometime in the first round.
"Oh, I'm pitching in the NLDS," the right-hander said, with some extra intensity in his voice. "I'm pitching in the NLDS."
The uncertainty arose during the top of the fourth inning Saturday night, when Scherzer felt a twinge in his right hamstring as he delivered his 54th pitch of the game against the Pirates. He tried to stay in, but Baker, pitching coach Mike Maddux and director of athletic training Paul Lessard made the call to remove him at that point and not take any chances.
Since then, Scherzer has been left facing something of a dilemma. He insists the hamstring does not bother him at all when he runs, jumps, lifts weights or just plays catch. The only time he notices it is when trying to throw a pitch with full effort, most notably when he pushes off the rubber to deliver the ball.
"I guess it's in the drive part, when I'm driving through and pushing off the mound," he said. "That's when you would feel anything of it. But like I said, that's what makes it weird. That's the only time that I feel this type of thing, where I feel the hamstring at all."
The only way to know for sure, then, is to try to throw off the mound with full effort. So Scherzer plans to attempt that during Wednesday's workout. If all goes well, he should be on track to start Game 2 of the series. If not, the Nationals would be left to bump Gio Gonzalez or Tanner Roark up to that start and then hope to slot Scherzer in for either Game 3 or 4 at Wrigley Field next week.
There isn't necessarily motivation to push Scherzer to be ready for Game 1, but there is reason to do everything possible to get him ready for Game 2. That's because he'd still be able to come back and start a potential winner-take-all Game 5 on Oct. 12 on full rest, thanks to the pair of off-days allotted in the NLDS schedule for travel between cities.
Scherzer's status could have some domino effects on the rest of the Nationals' postseason roster configuration. If they're concerned he's less than 100 percent healthy and in danger of getting pulled early in his start, they may feel the need to carry a true long reliever in their bullpen (such as regular starters Edwin Jackson or A.J. Cole).
"It can have an effect, if Max isn't indeed 100 percent Max," Baker said. "We'll see, know that in a few days."
Here's what the Nationals do know: Strasburg is 100 percent healthy and enjoying the most dominant stretch of his career. The right-hander is 5-0 with an 0.57 ERA over his last seven starts, having been scored upon only twice during that span while allowing only 37 batters to reach base in 47 2/3 innings.
Whether he's on the mound for Game 1 or sometime later, Strasburg will be making only his second career postseason start, the byproduct of the organization's shutdown of him in 2012, the club's first-round exit in 2014 and his elbow injury in 2016.
The Nationals have every reason to expect Strasburg will still be in peak form when he faces the Cubs.
"I'm sure he's looked forward to this moment for a long time," Baker said. "And so I just hope that he can continue to pitch down the stretch here. I don't see why not. He seems fairly unfazed by most situations, most things. So I expect Stras to handle this the way he does everything else."