A handful of times over the course of his career, Max Scherzer has taken a step back, pondered his next assignment from outside of baseball's day-to-day, one-game-at-a-time silo and embraced the gravity of it. The last such occasion was Game 6 of the 2013 American League Championship Series, which Scherzer -- then with the Tigers -- called the biggest start of his career. On that night at Fenway Park, he allowed three runs over 6 1/3 innings but walked five Red Sox in defeat.
This one, Scherzer says, is bigger. If the Nationals beat the Dodgers in Game 5 of the National League Division Series tonight (8 ET/5 p.m. PT on FS1), they will advance to the NL Championship Series against the Cubs. If they lose, they will go home.
"This is probably the biggest start of my career, the biggest start of my life," Scherzer said, who will be opposed by left-hander Rich Hill, who will start on short rest. "How you handle that, going out there and using the emotion of that scenario that everything's on the line -- look, I'm not going to shy away from it. This is the biggest start of my career."
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The Nationals did not want to fly back home under these circumstances, faced with a winner-take-all Game 5 after losing Game 4 on Tuesday, 6-5. But unlike the Dodgers, who used Clayton Kershaw on short rest in Game 4, the Nats did keep their best pitcher stashed for the occasion.
Consider that a significant benefit. Though Scherzer lost Game 1 to Kershaw, giving up four runs in six innings, he was easily the Nationals' top pitcher during the regular season. Perhaps the favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award, Scherzer led the circuit with 20 wins, 228 1/3 innings, 284 strikeouts and a 0.97 WHIP. His 2.96 ERA ranked eighth.
Over his postseason career, Scherzer has gone 4-4 with a 3.93 ERA, delivering all but one of those outings for the 2011-14 Tigers. The exception occurred last Friday before a sold-out crowd at Nationals Park, where fans will again begin congregating hours prior to tonight's first pitch.
"If it's anything like Game 1, it's going to be such a thrill," said Scherzer. "Game 1 was unbelievable there in D.C. The fans were just going nuts from the first pitch. So the fact that it's going to be Game 5, I mean -- our fans really brought it in Game 1, so I can only imagine the atmosphere going into Game 5."
"I know he's excited," Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said. "We've got him on full rest. So from our perspective, we'll be excited to get back home to D.C."
Heading into tonight's game, Scherzer knows, the Dodgers will watch video and take notes -- "That goes without saying that they will be prepared," Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts said. Scherzer will do likewise, with both sides doing enough homework that he doesn't believe either team will glean an advantage.
Scherzer simply must execute, turning the biggest start of his life into the same sort of outing he has delivered umpteen times.
"Anything can happen in Game 5," Scherzer said. "So you've got to be ready for anything and everything, be able to go out there and win every type of game. Every inning, every pitch you've got to have the utmost focus to execute your pitches. Because anything can happen in a one-game playoff."