An autumn chill permeated Nationals Park on Saturday night. A fierce crosswind raged. People bundled up. October was coming, and on the mound for the Washington Nationals, fittingly, stood Max Scherzer, their projected starter for Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday.
Saturday's start against the Pittsburgh Pirates was supposed to be a stress-free tune-up for Scherzer. It was a chance for him to tinker against a lesser foe while applying the finishing touches on a convincing case for a second consecutive Cy Young Award. But those pursuits were abruptly torpedoed with one out in the top of the fourth inning when Scherzer's final outing of the 2017 regular season concluded with a hamstring cramp in Washington's 4-1 loss.
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said Scherzer likely would've stayed in the game if the stakes were higher. Scherzer, however, wasn't around to explain what happened because he left for what a Nationals spokesperson described as a "precautionary" MRI exam after the game.
"We got to make it to the playoffs healthy," Baker said. "So we thought it was better that we make that move, the precautionary move, to get him ready."
Scherzer was plowing through the Pirates without a semblance of tribulation when he got locked into a tussle with Josh Bell, one of the few remaining threats remaining in Pittsburgh's lineup following Andrew McCutchen's late pregame scratch. Nothing seemed out of sorts through five pitches.
But that changed when Scherzer threw an 84 mph change-up for a ball and landed awkwardly. Nationals infielders immediately noticed something was askew. Scherzer hopped and circled around the mound. He then shook his right leg, as if attempting to loosen something, when he climbed back onto the rubber. Scherzer appeared undeterred and began his windup, but suddenly stopped with his hands above his head.
The Nationals' infield then converged on the ace. Murphy led the intervention and signaled to the dugout, coaxing Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux for a visit. Trainer Paul Lessard then arrived. And after a brief conversation, which lip readers detected Scherzer explaining his hamstring was tight, the Washington ace walked off the field. He went to one of the two orange Gatorade jugs in the Nationals' dugout, took a swig, and beelined to the steps down into the hallway leading to the clubhouse.
"He didn't want to come out," Baker said. "We thought it was best. Max never wants to come out. We thought it was best for him and us for him to go out."
Scherzer threw 54 pitches. He allowed one hit — Max Moroff singled with one out in the third inning — and he struck out five. The only walk charged to him was the walk A.J. Cole, his replacement, issued to Bell with his first pitch out of the bullpen.
"He was on," Baker said. "He was electric. Yeah, he was vintage Max all the way. He was throwing the ball great. "
Scherzer ended his season with a 2.51 ERA, second in the National League behind Clayton Kershaw, and 0.01 ahead of teammate Stephen Strasburg. He logged 200⅔ innings to finish with more than 200 innings for the fifth straight season and compiled 268 strikeouts, the most in the National League for the second straight year.
The Nationals (97-64) were leading 1-0 when Scherzer departed, their run coming on Ryan Zimmerman's RBI single in the second inning — the first of two singles in two at-bats for Zimmerman, who exited after six innings with hits in six straight plate appearances dating from Friday. The Nationals were silent otherwise against Pirates right-hander Jameson Taillon. They recorded two other hits — Murphy singled ahead of Zimmerman in the second inning and Cole singled for his second career hit in the fifth inning. Bryce Harper, meanwhile, went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts in his fourth game back from injury. He's 1 for 15 with six strikeouts since returning.
Cole was nearly flawless in 3⅔ scoreless innings of relief. His only blemishes were the walk charged to Scherzer and two he issued on his own. Both times a runner reached third base and both times Cole wiggled free with the narrow lead intact.
Enny Romero served as the final piece of the bridge to Brandon Kintzler in the ninth inning. Closing in place of Sean Doolittle, who pitched Thursday and warmed up extensively Friday, Kintzler first surrendered an infield single to Starling Marte, who was initially called out before the ruling was overturned. Bell then followed with a single before Sean Rodriguez stroked two-out double to tie the game and spoil Baker's bid to get Kintzler to 30 saves. After walking Elias Diaz to load the bases, Kintzler yielded a triple to Moroff to make it 4-1.
"Infield hits always seem to start something crazy in the ninth inning," Kintzler said. "You just can't stop something like that."
But results at this point, with one game remaining, are inconsequential. What mattered was what happened without warning in the fourth inning. It was the third time Scherzer had a start cut short because of injury since Aug. 1. The previous two injuries — a stiff neck and a bruised calf — were minor, though neck stiffness flared up again in mid-August, forcing a late scratch in San Diego and a subsequent stint on the disabled list. By all accounts, Saturday's issue is also not major. If it were Game 1 of the NLDS, not Game 161 of the regular season, Scherzer probably doesn't stop mid-windup and pitches through the discomfort.
While the timing — six days before the playoffs begin — and the MRI appointment still create reason for some angst, the Nationals have the luxury of employing two aces. If they determine it is best not to start Scherzer in Game 1 against the Chicago Cubs, they can assign the task to Stephen Strasburg, another leading Cy Young contender. It's a blow no other club in baseball is equipped to absorb quite like Washington.
But the Nationals need a healthy Scherzer to win a World Series. They need that one-two combo to stifle deep lineups deep into October. And they know it. So instead of taking a chance, they took their fiery right-hander out of a meaningless game. Their focus is on what begins in less than a week.