With the National League Division Series tied at two games apiece, the Nationals and Dodgers return to Washington for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET on FS1).Here are three keys for the Nationals if they hope to advance::: NLDS: Dodgers vs. Nationals coverage ::1. Max Scherzer must
With the National League Division Series tied at two games apiece, the Nationals and Dodgers return to Washington for a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET on FS1).
Here are three keys for the Nationals if they hope to advance:
:: NLDS: Dodgers vs. Nationals coverage ::
1. Max Scherzer must be Max Scherzer
Scherzer, a front-runner for the NL Cy Young Award, struggled in Game 1, allowing two homers and four earned runs in six innings, as the Nationals fell, 4-3. Now, Washington's ace gets the ball again, and he knows he needs to be better.
"This is probably the biggest start of my career, the biggest start of my life," Scherzer said. "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."
Since the Dodgers used ace Clayton Kershaw in Game 4, the Nationals will have a substantial advantage on the mound in Game 5 with Scherzer going against Rich Hill whatever relievers L.A. manager Dave Roberts uses to get through nine innings. A characteristic start from Scherzer -- say, seven innings, two runs, eight Ks -- would put Washington in excellent shape.
2. The Nationals must give Daniel Murphy and Jayson Werth some help
Murphy is hitting .462 with a .991 OPS in this series. Werth is hitting .467 with a 1.356 OPS. But after those two, the next highest OPS in the Nationals starting lineup is Ryan Zimmerman's .812, and several regulars are sporting some ugly stat lines.
The Nationals could desperately use some production from Danny Espinosa (.091/.286/.091), Anthony Rendon (.188/.235/.375), Bryce Harper (.214/.421/.286) and catchers Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino (a combined .188/.188/.438). No team will last long in October with half of its lineup struggling to produce.
Murphy and Werth have been great. Zimmerman and Trea Turner have been solid. Now it's time for everyone else to wake up.
3. The bullpen must keep putting up zeros
After throwing 12 1/3 scoreless innings over the first three games of the series, the Nationals' bullpen began to crack just a little Tuesday in Game 4, allowing two runs in 5 1/3 innings.
Though it's hard to blame Washington's relievers, who have had to clean up after starters who've been unable to last deep into games, it has become more difficult for manager Dusty Baker to find fresh options.
"It puts a lot of pressure on you to try to figure out who is the strongest, who is the most rested, and you try to do matchups the best you can," Baker said. "But sometimes it comes down to who is the most rested."
The Nationals would love for Scherzer to throw eight brilliant innings and make life easy for the bullpen. More likely than not, however, a Washington reliever or two will be called upon in a high-leverage spot Thursday. How the weary 'pen handles that assignment could decide Game 5.
Alex Putterman is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington.