The Nationals had left-hander Sean Doolittle warming up in the seventh inning. His club was facing elimination but led 6-1 in Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers at Nationals Park.
Max Scherzer had allowed only three hits and one run in six frames against the vaunted Dodgers lineup. He had thrown 82 pitches.
But then he fought through the seventh, firing 27 more pitches, and willed his team within six outs of a must-win game
The Dodgers’ Corey Seager flew out to right field to begin the inning. But Matt Beaty singled and then Scherzer allowed back-to-back walks to Gavin Lux and Will Smith. Suddenly the bases were loaded.
Dave Roberts went to pinch-hitter Chris Taylor with one out.
That is when the Nationals reached another decision-time moment. Pitching coach Paul Menhart came out to the mound.
“I think Menz was just kind of coming out try to calm everybody down,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki. Obviously, a pivotal spot in the game. But I think at that point he knew it was just between me and Max. We were going to figure this out. We figured out our game plan to this guy and went from there.”
Menhart said there was a discussion, but not much needed to be said.
“Why don’t you ask him because it was a good conversation believe it or not,” Menhart said. “It was very intense on a positive side. It was an intense, in the moment conversation.”
After being pressed on the conversation again, Menhart joked: “He told me he loved me.”
“(Menhart) just wanted to give him a little breather,” said Nationals manager Davey Martinez. “As you know, typical Max. ... It was Max’s game at that point. We had Doolittle up for (Max) Muncy. Max got the ground ball. What an incredible performance by Max tonight. He gave it everything he had.”
Scherzer stayed in the game and battled through eight pitches to finally get Taylor with a swinging strike three with is slider.
Two left-handed batters were next: Joc Pederson and Muncy. Scherzer had reached the century mark in pitches for the night.
With Doolittle ready to go, Martinez had another decision to make: go to his southpaw to get the left-hander or stick with Scherzer.
Scherzer stayed in.
With his 109th pitch, Scherzer used a changeup to get Pederson to roll over a ground ball to second base to end the inning. The previous pitch, Pederson had fouled a ball down the right field line that dropped an inch away from driving in at least two runs.
Flash back to the seventh inning of 2016 NLDS Game 5 at Nats Park, when Pederson hit a solo homer off Scherzer that was part of a four-run Dodgers rally. Los Angeles went on to win the game 4-3 and take the series, three games to two.
This time, Scherzer recorded a key out in the seventh inning of a Game 4.
“I was just gassed. I was out,” Scherzer said. “I was empty in the tank, giving everything I got. I could feel my arm slot was lowering because I was fatiguing and it just becomes a mental grind of you got to, in that moment, just collect yourself and just if your arm slot is dropping, just focus on what you can do and try to execute pitches.
“I caught a break with Pederson. That ball’s an inch foul, it could have been an inch fair. But thankfully it was foul and I was able to execute a changeup and was able to get out of a big situation.”
Scherzer’s line was made even more incredible because he threw 14 pitches Friday night in the Nats’ Game 2 win in Los Angeles. He got through seven innings on Monday, allowing one run on four hits with three walks and seven strikeouts.
“(It was) almost like he was pitching because he knew he needed to go deep into the game,” Menhart said. “It really did. It looked like he made an honest effort not to just try to embarrass the guys on the other team as much as he usually does until the very end. Midway through, that’s when he started to really amp it up.”
“Yeah, I knew I needed to make a full-on start,” Scherzer said. “There’s been times, like I know there’s times in the regular season where you’re not fresh, where you come into a game and you got to conserve where you’re at - try to almost pitch more - and today was kind of one those days, given that I pitched in Game 2. But I knew I could still pitch, I knew I had all the pitches working and was just trusting Zuk. Just back there, whatever he was putting down I was willing to just execute and just stay within our game plan.”
Suzuki said of Scherzer: “It’s called digging deep right there. We talked a little bit. He wasn’t feeling his best. He knew our backs were against the wall. We needed to win this game, a big spot right there. He made two big pitches and we got out of that inning so that was good.”
So would Scherzer somehow be available if needed in Game 5? Not a chance.
“No, I mean, my arm is hanging right now,” Scherzer said. “That was that. That pushed me all the way to the edge and then some. So, yeah, I can’t imagine any scenario where I’m pitching.”