Doolittle felt his mouth drop and didn’t answer. Instead, he pointed, guiding Scherzer into the stadium, giving legs to a plan the Washington Nationals had been plotting for days. On Friday night, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Dave Martinez managed as if this club couldn’t lose. And it didn’t, taking a 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers and telling its opponent that every hand — no, every last finger — is on deck.
Stephen Strasburg, on only two days’ rest after a 34-pitch relief appearance, threw six innings and gave up one run. Doolittle, the closer for most of this season, had the seventh and allowed a solo home run. Then came Scherzer, once slated to start Game 3 on Sunday, to strike out the side in the eighth. Then came Daniel Hudson, who worked out of a bases-loaded jam in a cover-your-eyes ninth.
The formula was creative. It was crazy. And it worked, from the first out to the 27th, to put pressure on the favored Dodgers with an even series swinging east for Sunday’s Game 3.
“I don’t know how we’re going to slice it up the rest of the way,” Doolittle said. “But we’re feeling good with a chance to go back to D.C. with a chance to win at home.”
This approach didn’t start brewing Friday. It didn’t even start brewing this past week. It began in May, before this season turned around, when Trea Turner came off the injured list and could only use nine fingers. The 10th, his right index, was broken April 2 and was barely functional. But the message spread in the clubhouse. About a month later, in the guts of June, Scherzer threw six scoreless innings with a broken nose.
Everyone noticed. Rest was no longer an option. The team later printed shirts that read: “Day off? [Expletive] that.” So when the postseason arrived, and the stakes skyrocketed, Scherzer and Strasburg kept it going. Strasburg told Martinez that he wanted to come out of the bullpen in Tuesday’s wild-card game. He did and threw three scoreless innings to set up a comeback in the eighth. Then Scherzer was in Martinez’s office Thursday, before Game 1 against the Dodgers, lobbying for a relief appearance. One player recalled Scherzer “pretty much begging” to get in ahead of his next start.
Martinez never sought out the star pitchers. He never had to.
“You can be thrown right into the mix whenever,” Scherzer said. “There is no routine in the postseason. There is no routine right now. It’s come to the park ready to compete.”
The relievers first heard the Scherzer rumblings during batting practice Friday. Scherzer’s public account is that was when he spoke with Martinez about possibly coming out of the pen. But the front office and coaching staff had been considering the move all week. The Nationals have a large gap between their stacked rotation and Hudson and Doolittle. They are the only two reliable relievers. The rest — Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero — are becoming less viable by the appearance. The Nationals got to this point despite that glaring vulnerability.
The club had watched a combination of Rainey, Rodney and Strickland yield four runs in the final three innings of Game 1. It deflated the Nationals in a 6-0 loss. So Martinez committed to throwing the house at the Dodgers before leaving town. He sent Scherzer down to the bullpen in the fifth, planning to fire his best bullet, and the ace arrived in time to slump into a folding chair and chat with the relievers. Doolittle recalled Scherzer as “much calmer” than when he came out of the bullpen during the 2017 playoffs. Aaron Barrett described him as a “mad dog in a cage.” It was mythmaking in real time.
Javy Guerra thought that Scherzer was ready from the moment he got there. He saw it in the 35-year-old’s piercing eyes. Then Guerra, who’s not on the NLDS roster, stopped mid-sentence to offer an unsolicited thought: “The whole thing was genius.”
“Once Stras went six, I didn’t know if we were going to use Max; I was a little disappointed,” Doolittle said. But the lefty peeked back out at the bullpen after he recorded the second out of the seventh. “I had a small window where I could see who was warming. It was him. I thought, ‘Oh, let’s [expletive] go.’ ”
Scherzer came out firing 99 mph fastballs. He later called it “adrenaline” rather than emptying the tank for the single inning. He struck out rookie Gavin Lux with a back-foot cutter. He got Chris Taylor swinging at a slider below the zone. He then set down Joc Pederson on three pitches, the last one a cutter, and made it seem like he could go one more.
But Martinez and Scherzer thought ahead. The manager had already used Doolittle earlier than he had all season. He already plugged Scherzer into the eighth. He finally reached for some normalcy, calling down for Hudson for the ninth, and Scherzer agreed with a Game 3 start still in play. The other option is pitching Aníbal Sánchez for the first time since Sept. 25.
“If I were to go out there and pitch the ninth, it would really be taxing, given the situation and the moment,” Scherzer said. “That could hinder how effective I could be in the future, considering everything at play. We have Huddy. Huddy is a closer. Let him close.”
Hudson allowed a leadoff double to Justin Turner. He rebounded to strike out A.J. Pollock on a full-count slider. He recorded the second out when Anthony Rendon made a falling-down catch along the left field line. But then Martinez intentionally walked Max Muncy to set up a righty-righty matchup with Will Smith. That put the tying run on base with two outs. That was playing with fire and gasoline. Then Hudson walked Smith, on four pitches, and this had all the makings of another bullpen disaster.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki visited Hudson once to make sure Turner wasn’t stealing signs from second base. He came again after Hudson threw ball four to Smith. Then he came again while Corey Seager battled Hudson, fouling off five four-seam fastballs at 96 mph or faster, to ask what Hudson wanted to throw for the kill. Suzuki suggested a fastball or change-up. Hudson had yanked three sliders against Smith that weren’t close to the zone. But Hudson wanted to throw a slider on the plate once the fastball was imprinted in Seager’s brain.
And once he did, once Seager swung and missed, once Hudson was screaming in front of the mound and the stadium fell into a hush, the creative and crazy plan was complete. The series was tied. The Nationals gave themselves a chance.
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