Erick Fedde was sitting on a bench in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen tunnel, talking with other relievers and watching Tuesday night’s National League wild-card game on TV, when he realized Max Scherzer was due to bat fourth in the fifth inning. Washington trailed the Milwaukee Brewers by two runs and, if anyone reached base, this seemed like a moment to pinch-hit for Scherzer.

Fedde was a starter for most of this season, so when he moved to the bullpen, veteran relievers would alert him to situations in which he might be called upon to pitch. That calculus never would have occurred to him as a starter, but he now understood. He thought: “You know who I should tell? The guy who’s going to pitch.”

The 26-year-old right-hander walked down the tunnel and over to the veteran sitting and watching in the bullpen. The potential domino effect surprised Stephen Strasburg, but it made sense. He got up to stretch.

“I didn't really think about that,” Strasburg said later. “Good looking out on him.”

The situation played out exactly as Fedde suspected. Brian Dozier pinch-hit for Scherzer, then Strasburg entered in the sixth to pitch three scoreless innings and keep the Nationals’ deficit at two long enough for the heroics of Juan Soto, who in the eighth inning smacked a bases-loaded single to right field that, along with an error by Trent Grisham, delivered a 4-3 win. The victory meant more to Strasburg because of the long, difficult road it took to overcome the team’s poor start to the season.

“Sometimes it’s nice to kind of be considered the underdog or for people to write you off,” he said. “I would say a lot of people in this city wrote us off. But it’s nice for us to stick together because that only made us pull for each other even more, proving everybody wrong.”

Strasburg had pitched in 242 major league games before this, but his 243rd was the first time he entered in relief. The veteran right-hander’s sterling performance — coupled with Scherzer’s rough start — gave more ammunition to those who argued he should have started the wild-card game.

Tuesday was Strasburg’s regular start day, and something Manager Dave Martinez stressed as key to Strasburg’s season — one of the most dominant and durable of his career — was consistent routine between starts. Not disrupting Strasburg’s flow was one of the main arguments, other than recent performance, to start Strasburg instead of Scherzer. But the Nationals opted for Scherzer and asked Strasburg, their second-best pitcher all year, to come out of the bullpen. He was on board. The outing worked just as the Nationals scripted, starting in a clean inning and ending with zeros.

“You're talking about big-boy baseball right there,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “You're talking about your horse that you're relying on. [Strasburg] came out and did it for the name on the front of the jersey more than the name on the back. That's the type of pitcher he's been since he got here.”

Before the game, Strasburg did everything he would on a start day — stretching, studying, pregame throwing — except with the relievers instead of starting catcher Kurt Suzuki. Nothing felt out of the ordinary, he said. Not trying something new with the season on the line. Not facing a deficit with his team’s season on the line. Not even running in from the bullpen.

“I do a lot of running, so it was no different,” he said. “I'm pretty used to that by now.”

Teammates respected the approach. They might have felt different during the game — Fedde got chills watching Strasburg run out of the bullpen because, “it’s like, he’s one of the faces of this franchise” — but they tried not to betray it. When Strasburg got to the mound in the sixth, all Suzuki asked was which code they wanted to use with a runner on second to prevent sign-stealing.

The approach against the Brewers’ batters changed when Strasburg entered. Suzuki wouldn’t say what exactly, but it was designed to “slow ‘em down a little bit.” Strasburg stayed true to his arsenal — using his curveball and four-seam fastball on about half his pitches, complementing them with a change-up and two-seam fastball — and it worked. He sailed through three frames, striking out four and navigating around two hits.

When it was over, when the Nationals sprinted onto the field in disbelief, when a night full of improbable events reached its stunning conclusion, Strasburg was one of the first teammates they turned to mob.

Minutes later, Strasburg walked out of the clubhouse in a red shirt with the curly W logo and workout shorts. He beelined for the family room a few steps away. There was a cry of “Daddy!” and Strasburg emerged holding his young daughter in the crook of his right arm. His older daughter trailed behind as they headed back to the clubhouse, back to the celebration.

Not long after, the girls nowhere in sight, Strasburg stood on the outside of his teammates’ celebration circle. The player as responsible as anyone watched as others shook up bottles and sprayed them. He just smiled and sipped on a can of Budweiser. Not until teammate Aaron Barrett doused him with a beer did Strasburg slide his goggles over his eyes.

The party was raucous — whistles chirping and bass lines pounding and alcohol flying everywhere — but those who understood the gravity of what Strasburg had done found him in the quieter moments. Pitching coach Paul Menhart pulled him in for a hug. Catcher Yan Gomes pounded him on the chest. Martinez leaned in and told him, “Good job.”

Then Strasburg spotted Fedde and waved him over. The younger pitcher craned over a white folding table as the veteran talked in a low voice. Strasburg thanked Fedde in a few words of his own because, without that heads up, who knows what would have happened. They might not have been standing there at all.

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