Strasburg and surprise reliever Scherzer pitch Nats to win (updated)

LOS ANGELES - How much did the Nationals believe they needed to win Game 2 of the National League Division Series tonight? Enough to start Stephen Strasburg three days after he threw three innings of relief in the NL wild card game.

And that wasn't even the biggest gamble Davey Martinez took this evening.

No, Martinez felt victory tonight was so critical, he sent Game 3 starter Max Scherzer to the mound for the bottom of the eighth inning with his team leading by two runs.

You think the Nats wanted this one? You better believe it.

And you think they didn't just flip the script on this best-of-five series after walking out of Dodger Stadium with a 4-2 victory over Clayton Kershaw and company that served as a major statement to their 106-win opponents that they are in it to win it?

Behind Strasburg's six innings of brilliance, then one inning apiece from Sean Doolittle, Scherzer and Daniel Hudson, the Nationals pulled it off and evened this series up as they prepare to head home for Game 3 on Sunday night.


"Going home 0-2 is not ideal, obviously," Ryan Zimmerman said. "Good game last night, couldn't pull it out. But to come back and rebound and get this game against one of the best pitchers of our generation ... to watch those two guys go back and forth, it was a fun one to be a part of."

Strasburg was the dominant story for most of the night, because he was so dominant on the mound. The right-hander, offering to start three days after his 34-pitch relief appearance against the Brewers, was absolutely electric in further bolstering his already sparkling postseason resume.

Strasburg didn't allow a baserunner until there were two outs in the fifth. He finally allowed his one and only run in the sixth, after which he had lowered his ERA in five career postseason appearances to 0.64, with 38 strikeouts and four walks in 28 innings.

"I feel like he does it quite often, but I guess this was a little bit bigger stage," shortstop Trea Turner said. "But just three pitches, stuff moving all over the place, using all of them in every count, and it's tough."

As good as Strasburg was, given the short turnaround from Tuesday's do-or-die game in D.C., Martinez decided he couldn't ask for more than 85 pitches from him tonight. And so he entrusted the final three innings to three relievers. Er, make that two relievers and one ace and three-time Cy Young Award winner.

First up was Doolittle, who after sitting out Game 1 with the Nationals trailing was given a chance to face the lefty-heavy portion of the Dodgers lineup tonight with a 3-1 lead. Doolittle looked good; he struck out a pair and consistently threw his fastball 95 mph. But Max Muncy managed to get on top of one high heater and send it soaring to the bleachers for a solo homer that trimmed the lead to 3-2.

"The playoffs are a different beast," Doolittle said. "There are 53,000 people in the stadium. You're going to have a little bit extra, so I was trying really hard to stay fluid and attack the zone."

The Nationals would pick up a huge insurance run on Asdrúbal Cabrera's pinch-hit RBI single in the top of the eighth, though they missed an opportunity to add more when Cabrera tried to take second on the throw and got caught in a rundown.

They also lost Victor Robles to a hamstring injury in that inning when the rookie tried to beat out a bunt and came up lame. Michael A. Taylor had to finish the game in center field, with Robles set to be examined Saturday after the team arrives back in Washington.

Up 4-2 and still needing six outs to win this game, Martinez now made the call to Scherzer. The ace had thrown 77 pitches Tuesday night, and he's supposed to start Game 3 on Sunday. But Game 2 became more important, and so the righty trotted in from the bullpen for the bottom of the eighth as the crowd gasped.

"I talked to Max before the game," Martinez said. "Today was his (between-starts throwing) day. We held him back. He said he was good to go. I told him that, and I specifically told him that I will not use him in the ninth. But I would have to probably use him in the bridge: the sixth, seventh inning."

Just like Tuesday, Scherzer was amped up, firing 98-99 mph fastballs and devastating sliders and cutters. But he was unhittable. He struck out Gavin Lux. He struck out Chris Taylor. He struck out Joc Pederson. Scherzer stalked off the mound having thrown 14 pitches in a perfect setup appearance.

"I knew I just needed to mentally bring it, mentally get to that level of what it's like in the game," he said. "Because all the chips are on the table right now. So you gotta come out here, and execute pitches and give it everything you got."

Tempted as he was to send Scherzer back out for the ninth, Martinez knew that was asking too much. So now the Nationals had to hope Hudson could finish it off in the ninth.

He did, though it wasn't easy. Justin Turner led off with a ground-rule double. Hudson bounced back to strike out A.J. Pollock, then watched as Anthony Rendon made a sprawling over-the-shoulder catch of Cody Bellinger's popup behind third base. The Nationals elected to intentionally walk Muncy, meaning they would face Will Smith representing the tying run with two outs in the ninth.

Hudson then threw four straight balls to Smith, so now the bases were loaded for Corey Seager. The two battled through a tense eight-pitch at-bat that featured seven consecutive fastballs away. Finally on his eighth pitch, Hudson unleashed a slider down and in that fooled Seager to end a most dramatic ballgame.

"It was a little more entertaining than I wanted it to be," Hudson said. "Obviously, I didn't have the greatest command that I've had this year. Just tried to battle through it, and just tried to put the adrenaline I had into every pitch."

Though they were confident about their chances tonight with Strasburg on the mound, the Nationals also knew they were going to have to score some runs, preferably early. Then they went out and did just that.

Two innings in, they led 3-0 thanks to a steady stream of quality at-bats against Kershaw. Howie Kendrick's bases-loaded single in the top of the first got them on the board first. Back-to-back two-out RBI hits by Adam Eaton (single) and Rendon (double off the wall) in the second added to the lead.

The Nationals hit Kershaw hard throughout his six innings of work, with eight balls off the bat that registered at least 99.7 mph. But more than a few of them found a Dodger glove, and so Kershaw had to emerge from all this feeling fortunate to have only allowed three runs.

There was an opportunity to deliver a huge blow in the top of the first. But Eaton popped up a bunt attempt, Zimmerman popped up a first-pitch fastball and Kurt Suzuki struck out to leave the bases loaded.

"He settled in, competed," Zimmerman said. "It's never fun to face him. We got some early runs. Can't say enough about Stephen, obviously."

Yes, Strasburg was left to pitch with a three-run lead. Which was plenty adequate for him on this night.

Any concerns about the right-hander's stuff three days after his three-inning relief appearance in the wild card game were quickly dashed during an overwhelming bottom of the first in which he struck out Pederson with a changeup and Pollock with a curveball.

Those two off-speed pitches would define Strasburg's evening. He threw both the curveball and the changeup so effectively, the fearsome Dodgers lineup was flummoxed. It got to a point eventually where hitters started taking fastballs over the plate, presumably because they had to be geared up for something off-speed and froze when it came in straight.

Strasburg would retire the first 14 batters he faced, nine via strikeout. There were a few nice plays behind him, most notably Juan Soto's diving catch of Kershaw's sinking liner to left, but mostly the pitcher was in complete control.

"You try and do your homework and look at their weaknesses a little bit," Strasburg said. "But they're a pretty deep lineup. So sometimes there's not many weaknesses there, and you just got to go out there and pitch to your strengths."

Smith finally recorded the first hit for L.A. with a single to center in the fifth, firing up the sellout crowd. But Strasburg shut them right up again striking out Seager with a 3-2 changeup to end the fifth.

The sixth inning, however, was a different story. The Dodgers finally started making solid contact off Strasburg. Really solid contact. Matt Beaty singled. Pederson doubled. Turner sent a ball to the warning track for a sacrifice fly. Pollock scorched a liner right back up the middle, but Strasburg managed to snag it to end the inning.

Now it was time for Martinez's critical decision of the night. The Nationals needed nine more outs to win what ostensibly was a must-win game. The manager had to figure out who he could trust to record those nine outs.

In the end, he picked the three best pitchers he had available to him. Even if one of them is the staff ace.

"When you get to these games, I've said this before, you're playing to win one game," Martinez said. "Every day's crucial. We had a chance to win today. And I told Max: 'If the game's close, then we'll use you.' And we did that."

And because of it, the Nationals are heading home all tied up in what has now become a best-of-three series between two supremely talented ballclubs.

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