CHICAGO — Max Scherzer has not pitched since Sept. 30, when he was forced from a start with a right hamstring injury. It is the reason that the Nationals’ ace was pushed back to Monday’s Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Cubs.
That assignment came only after serious deliberations among those charged with weighing the risk of re-injury against the reward of deploying a two-time Cy Young Award winner in a critical game.
Yet for all that caution, Scherzer not only declared himself ready to throw 100 pitches against the Cubs in Game 3, but insisted that he’s positioned to pitch out of the bullpen if Game 5 is needed.
“That’s the reason I drafted him, and that’s the reason we signed him as a free agent, is because of that mentality and that mindset,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said.
Rizzo saw that competitive streak back in 2006, when he was the Diamondbacks’ director of scouting and drafted Scherzer with the 11th overall pick. And Rizzo didn’t forget it before the 2015 season when he signed Scherzer to a seven-year, $210-million deal to join the Nationals.
Now, the 33-year-old righthander will take the mound in a pivotal spot in this best-of-five set, with the Nationals still riding high from an eighth-inning rally in Game 2 that rescued their season. The uprising salvaged a split in Washington and demonstrated a new level of poise from a franchise still looking to escape from the first round of the playoffs for the first time.
“Guys had a little bounce in their step today,” said Scherzer, who positioned himself for a potential third Cy Young Award by finishing 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA while leading the National League with 268 strikeouts.
Trust will loom large. Rizzo said Scherzer’s willingness to be open about the status of his balky hamstring was the key to deciding when he could pitch. So too was the pitcher’s own knowledge of his body, which afforded him more leeway in determining his readiness to pitch.
Scherzer believes that as long as he maintains a consistent release point, he can shield himself from risk.
“It’s just the nature of dealing with so many different little ailments throughout the course of my career of different things,” he said.
Still, from the dugout, Nationals manager Dusty Baker intends to keep a close eye on his pitcher.
“I’m going to be looking for any difference of change of arm angles or if he winces or whatever,” Baker said.
Scherzer has spent his time making sure there will be changes of arm angles but no deviation from release point, no wincing. In addition to treatment, he focused on strengthening the hamstring and building endurance.
“That’s where we’ve done everything we can to make sure that I can throw a hundred pitches and not have this happen,” he said. “When I get on the mound tomorrow, I’m fully anticipating being able to throw a hundred pitches.”
On the eve of Game 3, Rizzo sounded convinced and wouldn’t be surprised to see Scherzer ride in and save the day.
“We talk about during the season, during the 162, it’s a marathon,” Rizzo said. “We don’t need any heroes. But this is playoff time and it’s time to be a hero. It’s time to shine. It’s time to be John Wayne.”