CHICAGO — Adrenaline, more than enough to mask the fatigue, was pulsating through Max Scherzer’s body as the sun faded away at Wrigley Field on Monday evening. The Washington Nationals’ reigning Cy Young Award winner had just allowed his first hit to the Chicago Cubs with one out in the seventh inning on his 98th pitch in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. He was two pitches short of his self-imposed pregame pitch objective and he was ready to exceed it, tweaked right hamstring be damned.
“I was just juiced out of my mind with adrenaline,” Scherzer said.
But Manager Dusty Baker thought Scherzer had done enough. Ben Zobrist was standing at second base after smacking a fastball to left field for a double. Kyle Schwarber, the beefy slugger, was looming. Baker decided he would rather avoid Schwarber and hinder the chances of a go-ahead home run. So he emerged from the dugout to relieve Scherzer of his duties, though he didn’t promptly take the ball. It wasn’t until after a conversation, after hearing input from Scherzer and from catcher Matt Wieters, that Baker removed his ace.
“It was very difficult,” Baker said.
He summoned left-hander Sammy Solis, which prompted Cubs Manager Joe Maddon to replace Schwarber with the right-handed-hitting Albert Almora Jr. It played out as Baker wanted until Almora tied the game with a single. An inning later, the Cubs had a 2-1 lead, which was enough to push the Nationals to the brink of elimination.
“We kind of looked at it and thought that Sammy Solis was the best option for us,” Scherzer said. “I know you guys are probably going to second-guess that, but these guys are here to make a decision. When they made that decision, I wasn’t going to override anybody.”
The decision concluded a masterful outing from Scherzer. Nine days after tweaking his hamstring during the regular season’s final weekend, an ailment that postponed his postseason debut to Monday, he held the Cubs without a hit through six innings on 90 pitches. He returned for the seventh to strike out Willson Contreras before surrendering the lone hit to Zobrist. He compiled seven strikeouts — two on fastballs, two on change-ups, two on sliders and one on a cutter — against a lineup saturated with five left-handed hitters. He walked three and hit another with a pitch.
“He looked like the guy who keeps winning Cy Youngs,” Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said.
To resemble the pitcher the Nationals have relied on the past three seasons, Scherzer made a mechanical adjustment in his delivery a couple of days earlier to limit the possibility of the hamstring hampering him. He pinpointed when the hamstring grabbed and experimented until he discovered a comfortable solution to alleviate the stress: getting his right foot up higher and quicker. He implemented the change and said the hamstring didn’t bother him at all Monday.
“Honestly, it allowed me to get to my front side better and keep my glove tight better,” Scherzer, 33, said. “It actually allowed me to pitch mechanically well because the back leg was in good positions the whole day. It allowed me to be mechanically sound and just execute good pitches.”
Before the game, he applied red hot, an ointment designed for sore muscles, on the hamstring and re-applied it after the third inning. But his focus remained on the mechanical adjustment. That, and adrenaline, concealed any hamstring tightness.
“I was searching for the command during the game, but as the game went on I felt better with it,” Scherzer said. “So the hamstring never grabbed on me. The endurance factor of that hamstring wasn’t a problem because of the way I was delivering the ball. That’s good news . . . that this injury is behind me.”
Whether Scherzer starts another game in 2017 depends on if the Nationals can avoid elimination in Game 4 Tuesday and Game 5 Thursday and advance to the first National League Championship Series in club history.
But his NLDS might not be over. Asked if he would be available to pitch out of the bullpen in Game 5, Scherzer gave a one-word answer: “Yes.”
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