WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer pumped both his fists near his sides and let out a roar as he made his way back to the dugout. Later he would admit that, in that moment, he was gassed, expending the last of his energy to pitch his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning to cap an excellent outing the Nationals desperately needed to save their season.
The National League Division Series is headed back to Los Angeles for a decisive Game 5 after Scherzer put the Nationals on his back and nearly carried them there with his performance in Game 4 on Monday night at Nationals Park. He dominated the best offense in the NL for seven innings of one-run ball, limiting the Dodgers to four hits and three walks while striking out seven to lead the Nats to a 6-1 victory to live another day.
"What an incredible performance by Max tonight," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "He gave it everything he had."
Washington now enters a winner-take-all Game 5 on Wednesday with Stephen Strasburg on the mound and a chance to exorcise years of postseason demons.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way, I guess,” Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “That’s kind of how our season’s been. We’ve played with our backs against the wall since May when everybody was counting us out. It’s no different now. You’ve just got to play for your season.”
And consider this: In Division Series history, road teams are 19-13 in Game 5s. The last time a Division Series went five games, in 2017, both the Indians and Nationals lost at home (to the Yankees and Cubs, respectively). And in postseason history, including all series and Wild Card Games, home teams are 56-58 in winner-take-all games.
“We’ve got Stras against Buehler, their big horse against one of ours,” Suzuki said. “We expect a great game, an exciting game.”
Fresh off tossing 14 pitches in the eighth inning of Game 2 just three days ago, Scherzer gave the Nationals 109 pitches on Monday night.
They pushed him into the seventh inning and trusted him with the bases loaded and one out. A mound visit with pitching coach Paul Menhart did not last long.
“He told me he loved me,” Menhart joked when asked what was said.
Scherzer kept the ball and proceeded to strike out Chris Taylor for the second out. Sean Doolittle was warming up in the bullpen, but even Doolittle knew there was no chance he was coming into the game that inning.
Scherzer narrowly avoided disaster after a ball off the bat of Joc Pederson landed just foul down the first-base line. The Nats ace regrouped and induced a groundout from Pederson to finish the inning as 36,847 at Nationals Park erupted behind him.
“I was just gassed,” Scherzer said of the final inning. “I was out. I was emptying the tank, giving everything I got.”
The Nats got to this point in the NLDS by using a desperate pitching strategy, attempting to avoid their leaky bullpen. Martinez deployed starting pitchers in relief and managed with the urgency of an elimination game for an entire series. The plan on Monday night, however, rested entirely on Scherzer. Martinez joked before the game that Scherzer might need to throw 140 pitches if they needed it. The Nationals would go as far as their ace took them. And he was up to the task.
“What Max did tonight, that speaks for itself,” Nationals second baseman Howie Kendrick said. “We needed him to go out and go at least seven for us, and he did that.”
Scherzer appeared vulnerable at the start of the game, when his fastball lacked its usual life. Justin Turner put the Dodgers ahead with a homer in the first. Through the first two innings, Scherzer induced only two swings and misses and struck out only one of the first 13 batters he faced. He admitted he had to conserve some energy, knowing he needed to last deep into the game despite pitching in Game 2.
And then he found his groove. He struck out five out of six batters over the fourth and fifth innings. Given a 5-1 lead by the Nationals’ offense in the bottom of the fifth, Scherzer began to cruise.
“You just can't say enough about him,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “You can't say enough about his [competitiveness]. He just sort of wills his way to getting outs. ... I just can't see anybody better, really. So I guess the one solace is we don't need to see him in Game 5.”
Yes, walking around in the clubhouse after the game, Scherzer still appeared exhausted. The Nats expect to have their entire staff available again in Game 5, but the Dodgers can indeed rule out Scherzer, who gave the Nats everything he had to get them to this point.
“My arm is hanging right now,” Scherzer said after the game. “That was, that pushed me all the way to the edge and then some. So, yeah, I can't imagine any scenario where I'm pitching [in Game 5].”
At the start of the postseason, Scherzer had made four starts with his team facing elimination in his career, and his team had gone 0-4 in those games. But twice in the past week, the Nationals have put Scherzer on the mound with their season on the line -- first in the Wild Card Game and again on Monday night -- and twice they came away with a victory.