Stephen Strasburg will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs Friday night, Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker announced Thursday morning, confirming what had almost been a foregone conclusion amid Max Scherzer’s lingering hamstring issues.
It will be Strasburg’s second career postseason start. The 29-year-old right-hander, who was shut down for the 2012 playoffs, started Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS against the Giants. He allowed two runs (one earned) on eight hits over five innings in a loss. Strasburg was injured when the Nationals played in the NLDS last season.
The decision to start Strasburg was increasingly likely the longer Scherzer went without throwing off a mound after walking off the field at Nationals Park on Saturday night with right hamstring tightness. Scherzer would have started Game 1 if he were 100 percent healthy, but he isn’t. He was scheduled to throw a bullpen session Wednesday, but that was pushed back to Thursday. He threw on flat ground instead.
Slowly but surely, the evidence accumulated suggesting Scherzer would start Game 3 of the NLDS instead of Game 2. First, Baker announced Strasburg as the Game 1 starter. Then Gio Gonzalez threw a bullpen session Thursday, common for him two days before a start. Scherzer did not throw a bullpen at all.
Eventually, people familiar with the Nationals’ plans confirmed them: Barring an unexpected problem with Scherzer’s right hamstring, he will pitch Game 3 at Wrigley Field, leaving Game 2 to left-hander Gonzalez. Neither Gonzalez nor Scherzer addressed reporters Thursday, though no one with the Nationals would have let them admit the plan anyway. For one, things could still change if Scherzer’s bullpen does not go well Friday. Second, the Nationals hate disclosing information before they have to, which is why Baker would only say for sure that Strasburg was starting in just more than 24 hours. As for what would happen in 48 . . . well, the Cubs read, too.
“We still haven’t decided on the second or third game,” Baker said, sticking to the company line. “A lot if it depends on our evaluation of Scherzer.”
Scherzer wanted to pitch earlier in this series. Nationals decision-makers held him back. He wanted to throw a bullpen to test his hamstring sooner. The Nationals’ training staff and decision-makers convinced him not to push, laying out the entire postseason scheduled and explaining that by pitching Game 3, Scherzer would also be available to pitch Game 1 of a potential National League Championship Series — and, perhaps, to come in for relief in Game 5 like Clayton Kershaw did a year ago. Scherzer seemed to like the idea.
Had the Nationals not had Strasburg available for Game 1, they might have pushed Scherzer sooner. The luxury of having two legitimate Cy Young-caliber pitchers has allowed them to handle Scherzer more carefully — more carefully than he probably would like — in the hopes of preserving him for a long October.
One could even argue Strasburg should have started Game 1 regardless of Scherzer’s situation. While Scherzer compiled a better season from start to finish, Strasburg was baseball’s best starting pitcher from when he came off the disabled list Aug. 19 through the end of the regular season. Over his final eight starts, Strasburg had a 0.84 ERA. He compiled 63 strikeouts to 10 walks and held hitters to a .171 batting average across 53 2/3 innings. He will most likely start Game 5, if necessary.
In the interim, the Nationals have until Friday morning to announce their NLDS roster. Their thinking about the composition of that roster has changed several times, according to people familiar with the situation, and they began making decisions Thursday.
Outfielders Victor Robles and Brian Goodwin, both of whom were not guarantees to make the rosters, will be on it, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Pedro Severino didn’t make the roster, leaving Matt Wieters and Jose Lobaton as the club’s two catchers, but Severino will remain with the team for the series. Alejandro De Aza, Raudy Read, and Rafael Bautista were sent to the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. to stay ready in case they’re needed.
Robles and Goodwin — out since mid-August with a groin injury — join Lobaton, Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind, and Wilmer Difo for a six-man bench, which leaves Washington with room for a seven-man bullpen. The consensus seemed to be that they would not need to use a spot on a long reliever such as Edwin Jackson or A.J. Cole as insurance for Scherzer. If something were to happen to Scherzer in Game 3, they would empty the bullpen in relief. The final spot will, instead, likely go to Enny Romero or Joe Blanton.
The biggest question remaining involves the size of that bullpen, which will include seven pitchers if the Nationals take a six-man bench like they did last year, and eight if they take the traditional five-man bench. If the bullpen is eight pitchers deep, Enny Romero and Joe Blanton will likely both be in it. If it is seven pitchers deep, one of them will likely sit out.
More will become official in the hours to come. For now, Strasburg is set for Game 4, and the Nationals’ most experienced and proven big game pitcher plans to be looming for Game 3.