Imagine you were presented with this scenario on May 24. Or July 24. Or even Sept. 24, for that matter.
The Nationals are facing the Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, with Max Scherzer on the mound, needing to win to force a Game 5 in which they’d have Stephen Strasburg on the mound.
Would you have taken that opportunity? Just know this: The Nationals themselves are happily taking it.
“I think we’re really comfortable right now, even though our backs are against the wall,” Sean Doolittle said late Sunday night. “We got Max going, and Stras going after him. We kind of feel like ... we’ve played a lot of must-win games here the last couple months of the season. We’ve had our backs against the wall before. Coming in here, looking at guys, talking to guys, nobody’s panicking.”
That doesn’t mean anyone should feel overconfident. Or take anything for granted. This is the postseason, and the opponents have now won 108 games this year in search of their third consecutive trip to the World Series.
The Nationals more than have their work cut out for them tonight on South Capitol Street, and then if they somehow survive, on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium.
But this is a team that has had to overcome a lot this season just to get to this point. From 19-31 to 93-69. From down two runs with two outs in the bottom of the eighth in the wild card game to another champagne celebration in the clubhouse.
The notion of an elimination game isn’t about to spook anybody at this point.
“If there was a team that was going to battle ‘til the end,” Yan Gomes said, “it’s us.”
What, though, must the Nationals do in order to live to see another day?
It starts, as always, with their starter. The Nats were willing to put Aníbal Sánchez on the mound for Game 3 to ensure they’d have a more rested Scherzer on the mound for Game 4. That means they’ve got to get everything they can possibly get out of the three-time Cy Young Award winner.
“For me, it’s just a mentality of just going out there with everything on the line,” Scherzer said. “The atmospheres I’ve pitched in, here with the wild card game and then there on the road in Dodger Stadium, I mean, it’s been intense. So you’re going to get the best out of me.”
What does that mean, though, in practical terms? In terms of innings? It means at least six and preferably seven. In terms of pitches? Well, his final total will definitely start with a one. And the second digit probably will be another one (or maybe even two).
“Obviously, we know we got our hands full with him, another one of their three horses,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “We’ll enjoy this one tonight and then show up tomorrow and game plan and try to make him work for every single out he gets tomorrow night, just like we have done all year long.”
What happens once Scherzer’s done? The Nationals have played four postseason games in the last week, and in three of them they’ve used one of their top starters out of the bullpen. Twice (Strasburg in the wild card game, Scherzer in Game 2 of the NLDS) it worked brilliantly. Once (Patrick Corbin in Game 3) it blew up in their faces.
It’s possible Martinez would turn to Strasburg again tonight to provide some amount of relief for Scherzer. Corbin offered his services again, though after his six-run, 35-pitch top of the sixth Sunday night, there probably will be motivation to let him rest.
“All hands on deck tomorrow,” the manager said. “We are going to come out, we’re going to fight and those guys know what we’re playing for: We want to go to L.A. That’s all this means. I told them that’s all this means: We would have to go to L.A. again.”
Ultimately, Game 4 figures to fall on the shoulders of the two remaining trusted members of the Nationals bullpen: Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Hudson has pitched the ninth inning in each of this team’s two victories so far this week. Doolittle has pitched only once, also in victory, though he gave up a homer to Max Muncy sandwiched in between three outs.
Both guys are fresh. Both are available. And both absolutely must pitch tonight, potentially for more than one inning.
“Oh, absolutely,” Martinez said. “I’m going to have to go one or two of those guys for one-plus innings. So we’ll see how it plays out. What I do know is that we got Mad Max on the mound tomorrow, which I believe puts us in a great position.”
So much of the discussion and the angst all week long has centered on the Nationals’ pitching staff, and the deployment of that staff. But then there’s this overlooked fact: This team is batting .189 in the postseason, with a .270 on-base percentage, .279 slugging percentage and only 10 RBIs in four games.
They have to hit, and they have to score runs. They’ll be facing 39-year-old Rich Hill, who only recently came back from injury and will be restricted to four innings or 60 pitches. And then they’ll face some assortment of Dodgers relievers, who so far have allowed only three runs in 10 1/3 innings in this series.
“We’ve just got to get the ball in the strike zone,” Martinez said. “And we’ve got to stay in the middle of the field. There’s a lot of hits in the middle of the field. We’ve just got to get back to that, and take our walks and just get back to the middle of the field.”
The Nationals will need to do all of that tonight if they want to have a chance to play another game in 2019.