LOS ANGELES — Welcome, Washington, to a tied National League Division Series that, after Friday night’s ulcer-inducing 4-2 victory for the Nationals over the Los Angeles Dodgers, is full of all new intrigue and promise. It is that way for one reason: The Nationals employ both Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. They are two of the best pitchers on the planet. And those two employees have essentially said: Here’s a whip. Flog me.

What they have done, through three postseason games over the course of four days, shows the Nationals understand what they have and what they don’t. On Tuesday night, Strasburg relieved Scherzer for three scoreless innings, and the Nats won the NL wild-card game. On Friday night, Scherzer relieved Strasburg — a brilliant, dominant Strasburg — with a stompin’-and-spittin’ eighth inning, and the Nats somehow clung to a victory that, without those two right arms, certainly would have slipped away.

Sorting this one out could take the length of a cross-country flight, then fill the hours before Sunday’s Game 3, because it included a decision to intentionally walk the tying run in the bottom of the ninth(?)(!!!). But we have learned a truth about these Nationals in this October. Starting pitchers are, by definition, eat-the-same-pregame-meal-and-take-the-same-route-to-the-ballpark creatures of habit. Strasburg and Scherzer are putting that notion on the table, then flipping it over.

AD
AD

“There is no routine in the postseason,” Scherzer said. “There is no routine right now. It’s come to the park ready to compete.”

Strasburg was just that Friday night, the best version of himself. On such occasions, there’s no way to hit his stuff. That he threw 34 pitches in that scoreless stint against Milwaukee three days earlier seemed not to hinder but rather to inspire. We can tell those tired tales of the hot days when he wilted, recount the times when something seemed slightly off — a breeze blowing the wrong way, a mound with substandard footing, toast browned 15 seconds too long — and thus, Strasburg became rattled.

“He’s really matured,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a teammate for the entirety of Strasburg’s 10-year career. “As a person, as a pitcher, he doesn’t let little things bother him anymore.”

AD
AD

Now? Now he glares. The Dodgers led the NL in runs, slugging percentage and on-base-plus-slugging percentage — by most measures, the best offense in the league. Strasburg, at times, reduced them to junior varsity backups still awaiting their first shave. He retired the first 14 Dodgers he faced, eight by strikeout.

The old book on Strasburg has been banned from public schools and libraries, blasphemous as it was. The new one has a lead character who has grown, physically, into a monster who has simultaneously developed his body as he has mastered his craft. He’s a chemistry professor with a double major in psychology who also happens to power lift.

“I just learned over the years that pressure’s a funny thing, and I think it’s something that you have complete control over,” Strasburg said. “There’s obviously a lot of expectations; there’s a lot of excitement in games. But I really tried, over the years, to train my mind into thinking that every single game is just as important and just sticking to my approach. I mean, my approach is everything, and the results are one thing, and how I respond to those results is just as important.”

AD
AD

This is no longer a pitcher who needs to roll his eyes at a call not granted, though he’s not entirely above it. On Friday night, he couldn’t believe plate umpire Jordan Baker didn’t ring up A.J. Pollock on a 2-2 fastball in the first. His response back when that old book was written would have been a pitch that missed by half a foot, yet he would have remained the victim. His response Friday: an ungodly curveball that reduced Pollock to a pretzel and a jog off the mound with only a glance back in Baker’s direction.

“He’s fun to watch,” Scherzer said, “especially in these big moments.”

So after his performance Friday — six innings, three hits, one run, no walks, 10 strikeouts, 85 pitches three days after setting down the Brewers — we can present with you Strasburg’s updated postseason résumé: a 0.64 ERA with four walks and 38 strikeouts in 28 innings as batters managed a .192 average against him. Oh, a salient point, given the current state of baseball: The next home run Strasburg allows in the postseason will be the first.

AD
AD

When Strasburg tired after six and left-hander Sean Doolittle worked the seventh — allowing a massive solo homer to Max Muncy — the bullpen gate swung open, and here came Scherzer. In Thursday’s Game 1, rookie Tanner Rainey and veterans Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland turned a 2-0 deficit into a 6-0 laugher, proving yet again they can’t be trusted by Manager Dave Martinez. So the Nationals, with a bullpen that statistically ranked among the worst this century, can’t play this October by conventional norms. Scherzer, Strasburg and the entire team know it.

“For me,” shortstop Trea Turner said, “it’s you pitch your best guys to win.”

Scherzer, coming off a season interrupted by injury, is inarguably one of those. He has the will to do this kind of thing, but it hasn’t always worked out. In the Nationals’ previous playoff appearance, against the Chicago Cubs in 2017, he appeared out of the bullpen in the fifth inning of Game 5. Though he retired two of Chicago’s toughest hitters, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, to start the frame, things went haywire from there, and the Nats lost one of the weirdest games you will ever see.

AD
AD

But after a pregame discussion with Martinez and the coaching staff Friday, Scherzer said he had an inning in him. Forget that he was supposed to start Sunday.

“For me, you bring it whenever you’re told to bring it,” he said. “This is the playoffs. You lay it on the line every time you touch that field.”

On Friday night, there was no Matt Wieters throwing the ball into right field, no catcher’s interference, no hitting a man with the bases loaded — none of the craziness that marked that loss to the Cubs. There was only Scherzer at his absolute best. He struck out rookie Gavin Lux with a cutter. He struck out Chris Taylor with a slider. He struck out Joc Pederson on three pitches, the last a cutter at which Pederson only flailed.

AD

So Scherzer for the ninth, too?

“Trust me,” Martinez said. “I was biting my lip, scratching my head.”

AD

Scherzer, though, said he would have been compromised in another inning because he had thrown 77 pitches Tuesday. The ninth would go to Daniel Hudson.

“Huddy’s our closer,” Scherzer said. “Let him close.”

Ah, if only it were that simple. The Nats are in this position only because even their two best relievers, Hudson and Doolittle, are worn down and spotty. Leading by two runs, Hudson allowed a leadoff double to Justin Turner, got two outs — and then Martinez decided to intentionally walk Muncy, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate.

Wait. What?

“There’s really not much to think about,” Martinez said.

AD

That seems to be — how to put this? — not true. But he’s the manager. Allow him to explain.

“Muncy hit a ball 400 feet against Doo,” Martinez said. “We just didn’t want that to happen. He’s a fastball hitter. We know that. Hudson throws fastballs. So I liked the other matchup.”

AD

The problem: The other matchup was Will Smith, and Hudson threw him four straight balls to load the bases.

There was, then, some stuff going down. Strasburg was done. Scherzer was done. Dodger Stadium pulsed. Zimmerman, a 35-year-old veteran of 15 years, looked over at Ted Barrett, the first base umpire, and said, “Whenever I’m done, this is what I’m going to miss.”

“You can’t replicate that,” Zimmerman said. “There’s nothing, once you’re done playing, that’s going to be on any sort of level like that.”

AD

There has been nothing in this postseason that is on any sort of level like what happened Friday night at Dodger Stadium. That Hudson struck out Corey Seager to end it secured the Nats’ win. What they took home, though, is almost as important: The knowledge that their two best pitchers are here to do whatever’s asked, convention be damned.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.

Read more on the Nationals:

AD