Such a moment occurred on the field at Minute Maid Park around 3 p.m. Central time Tuesday, when Max Scherzer finished throwing in left field, descended the dugout stairs and looked up at four reporters who had been looking his way. The fire in his blue eye and the determination in the brown one could have delivered the answer to an unspoken question themselves. Scherzer added a forceful nod, just in case.
Scherzer had just thrown for the first time since a nerve in his neck grew irritated, caused pain that prevented him from dressing himself and prevented him from making the biggest start of his career in Game 5 on Sunday.
He had just played light catch, thrown from his pitching motion, then marked off 60 feet 6 inches and let it fly. When he was done, Scherzer knew he could pitch Wednesday. When he was done, the Nationals knew that something that felt unthinkable two days ago was now entirely possible: If they could force a Game 7, they would have Max Scherzer to start it.
“Today he looked normal. Just like any other day he throws flat ground. He looked really good,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “ … Hoping he progresses from here to tomorrow. My guess is he comes out tomorrow and he’s going to get prepared like he prepares any other game and he’s ready to go. And you’re going to see Max be Max.”
Tomorrow, at the time, was not a given. Scherzer’s declaration would become a mere footnote if the Nationals couldn’t win Game 6. But even before Game 7 was assured, the idea of Scherzer starting a winner-take-all game at the end of seven months of baseball brought smiles to everyone’s face who allowed themselves to contemplate it.
“They'd probably make a movie about it, I bet, if he could. He could come back from the dead,” Adam Eaton said, his face breaking into a wistful grin. He meandered through a few more sentences before the idea hit him again.
“ … If there’s an opportunity to do it, it would be pretty sweet, honestly. I think guys would really feed off it.”
Two days ago, even Scherzer seemed skeptical he would be able to do so. His eyes had lacked that usual mischievous gleam when he talked to reporters Sunday, an hour or so after the Nationals announced he had been scratched from the biggest start of his career. He could hardly move his neck. His neck was covered in tape. He couldn’t dress himself.
Before Game 5, Scherzer received a cortisone shot in his neck, after which he was required to rest for 24 hours. Martinez said Scherzer wore a neck brace on the team’s flight to Houston. They moved him to the front of the plane, where he would have more room. By Tuesday, he felt good enough to throw and see. By Tuesday afternoon, he felt good enough to start Game 7 of the World Series.
Given how suddenly Scherzer’s neck issue arose, one could not rule out a relapse. Martinez cautioned that he would be checking in with Scherzer again a few hours after he threw, then again in the morning, to make sure he is ready. Scherzer threw in the bullpen in the sixth inning of Game 6, which led some to wonder whether he might really make an appearance. Martinez said later he considered pitching Scherzer in a tie game. When the Nationals scored, he shut him down. But Scherzer felt fine.
Even if he is, can a man who was unable to pull a shirt over his head a few days ago really be expected to provide the same high-intensity, high-pitch-count outing he usually does?
“If Max tells me tonight that he’s good, then Max will pitch until his neck decides he can’t pitch anymore,” Martinez said before the game. “I can’t see myself telling Max, ‘You’re only going to go 75 pitches.’ He’s going to want to go out there and go as long as he can.”
So Scherzer will pitch Wednesday. The Nationals will have plenty in the way of backup options. Theoretically, given that Wednesday’s game is the last of the season either way, every pitcher whose arm is still attached will be available. Realistically, after Stephen Strasburg pitched 8⅓ innings Tuesday, the entire bullpen will be available Wednesday.
Lefty Patrick Corbin hasn’t pitched since Saturday in Washington and would therefore be on three days’ rest — enough to start, let alone come out of the bullpen. Aníbal Sánchez threw 93 pitches Friday. He will be on full rest, too. The Nationals are open to using both of them out of the bullpen, though Corbin may make more sense as a left-handed complement to Scherzer. Then again, Sánchez’s varied arsenal could complement Scherzer’s high-powered stuff, too.
Sean Doolittle was only needed for two outs Tuesday, so he will be available, presumably for more than one inning if needed. After a lengthy outing Sunday, Daniel Hudson rested Monday and Tuesday. Although battling some nicks and bruises, he will be on plenty of rest, too.
But whatever Scherzer can give them, the Nationals will take. A few days ago, they didn’t think he would be able to give them anything.