HOUSTON -- As the top of the seventh inning of World Series Game 6 unfolded on Tuesday night, an unexpected sight rose from his seat in the visitors’ bullpen. Max Scherzer stretched and played a light game of catch, while those with clear sight lines began speculating about what it might mean. Scherzer was the Nationals’ probable starter for Game 7, but they had to get there first.
Ultimately, the Nationals scored two runs that inning to back Stephen Strasburg in a 7-2 win over the Astros to force Game 7 on Wednesday night. Scherzer reclaimed his seat, his warmup amounting to nothing more than what teammate Sean Doolittle called “a dry run.” Two days after the Nats scratched him from a start due to neck spasms, Scherzer asked his teammates if he looked as strong as he felt. To a man, they expressed their approval.
“It was coming out clean,” Doolittle said. “He looked really good. I think we’re all excited to see him pick up where Stras left off.”
For the Nationals, Scherzer represents the first part of a puzzle to record 27 outs in Game 7. For the Astros, Zack Greinke is prepared to counter him, making this the first time that two former Cy Young Award winners will be the starting pitchers in Game 7 of the World Series. Both right-handers will venture as far into the game as their managers will let them, before giving way to bullpens specially fortified for the occasion.
“We’re all going to be ready,” Doolittle said. “We’re all going to be willing to do whatever the team needs us to do to try to get any of the 27 outs.”
Here’s how that might look for each team:
The path to 27 outs: Theoretically, everyone other than Strasburg, who threw 104 pitches in Game 6, will be available. The most significant question is how long Scherzer, who said that days of treatment have “really freed up” his cervical spinal column, can pitch into the game. The Nationals do seem committed to giving him a normal length of rope.
“If Max tells me ... that he’s good, then Max will pitch until his neck decides he can’t pitch anymore,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I can’t see myself telling Max, ‘You’re only going to go 75 pitches.’ He’s going to want to go out there and go as long as he can.”
When asked how deep he can pitch, Scherzer replied simply: “Game 7. Let’s go.”
Given that Scherzer has not pitched more than seven innings in a start since June, however, the Nats will likely need at least six outs from their bullpen. Corbin, who has pitched in relief four times already this month, will almost certainly enter the game at some point, even if it’s just to face a single left-handed batter, such as Yordan Alvarez or Michael Brantley.
For the Nationals, the goal is simply to reach the seventh with a lead. If they do that, they can extend both Doolittle and a well-rested Daniel Hudson for more than three outs apiece. The Nats have spent this entire postseason leaning on their top six pitchers -- Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Sánchez, Doolittle and Hudson -- as much as possible. In a must-win Game 7, it’s unlikely they’ll turn to anyone else.
Starting pitcher: Greinke
Other starters available: Gerrit Cole
The path to 27 outs: Two significant factors will determine manager AJ Hinch’s strategy. The first is Greinke, who hasn’t completed five innings in either of his last two postseason starts. If Greinke can give Houston five or even six innings, it will make Hinch’s end-game decisions that much easier. When asked about his emotions entering Game 7, Greinke was characteristically succinct.
“A little excited about it,” he said. “But we’ll see. Wish it was in a National League park.”
The second factor that will color Game 7 is the availability of Cole, who threw 110 pitches Sunday in a Game 5 win. On two days’ rest, Cole will likely be available for at least an inning. But Hinch wasn’t revealing any part of his plan late Tuesday night, responding to a question about his best second-half starter by saying: “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Beyond Greinke and Cole, the Astros have one other advantage in the fact that closer Roberto Osuna has not pitched since Game 3. It would not be outlandish to think Osuna could pitch as many as three innings, as he did in American League Championship Series Game 5 last year against the Red Sox.
Right-hander Joe Smith is also good for an inning and, if needed, Houston could ask Jose Urquidy, Brad Peacock, Will Harris and Ryan Pressly for outs as well. While Tuesday’s starter, Justin Verlander, said he would “find a way” to be available, that’s the only part of this equation that seems more fantasy than reality.
The reality is this: If Hinch can go from Greinke to Cole to Osuna without using anyone else, he’ll probably sign up for it.