Scherzer has fanned 21 in his past two starts and has all of his overpowering stuff back to full strength, but he lacks a bit of his usual command and has given up four homers in those two outings. Strasburg, who pitched the Nationals to a 6-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday at Nationals Park, has been as good but seldom better than in his past eight starts.
Strasburg furthered his case with 10 strikeouts, including three of Bryce Harper (all swinging), to set a career high of 251. Strasburg threw only 92 pitches and left after six innings, perhaps a tip the Nats want to keep him fresh for Tuesday. In the dugout, Aníbal Sánchez, Gerardo Parra and Victor Robles engulfed him in a goofy group hug.
You can’t go wrong between a three-time Cy Young Award winner and a fully mature Strasburg, who had a 0.00 ERA in the 2017 playoffs. I would, gulp, go with Strasburg.
Assuming Corbin doesn’t start, should he be the first pitcher out of the bullpen in such a season-on-the-line game? Wouldn’t the left-hander be effective against a Milwaukee Brewers lineup stacked with left-handed hitters? For a day, Corbin also would give the Nats a second lefty to complement Sean Doolittle in the relief corps.
My preference for Tuesday — as Pitching Plan A — would be Strasburg to Corbin to NLDS. If necessary, add Doolittle, who looked like the best version of “Obi-Sean” on Wednesday with six swing-and-misses on high fastballs in one inning.
Assuming Milwaukee doesn’t end up passing the St. Louis Cardinals to win the NL Central, no one would be foolish enough to look past a Brewers team that has won 18 of its past 20 games, even without star Christian Yelich for the past 15 of them. But if Corbin worked in relief, the Nationals’ rotation for the Dodgers would line up excellently with everyone on ideal rest. Scherzer could pitch Game 1 and Sánchez (11-2, 3.42 ERA in his past 21 starts) Game 2. Corbin could start Game 3 at Nationals Park, where he is 8-2 with a 1.97 ERA, followed by Strasburg in Game 4 and then Scherzer if there is a Game 5 back in L.A.
Next dilemma: If Scherzer gets the start in the wild-card game, which would certainly provide Max Theater, should Kurt Suzuki, the “RBI machine” who usually catches him but who has a somewhat sore elbow, still be behind the plate? Why not recently hot Yan Gomes (.867 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over the past 30 games before Thursday) no matter who pitches?
What should the Nats’ lineup — especially the right side of the infield — look like in such a vital game? How can you possibly keep Howie Kendrick, batting .345, or Asdrúbal Cabrera, who has 37 RBI in his 36 games with the Nats, out of the lineup?
To be honest, this isn’t a fair question. Kendrick has the highest batting average in the majors in September and has hit everything on the screws for weeks. If he doesn’t start Tuesday, it’s grounds to impeach. On Thursday, Cabrera had a sacrifice fly, a walk, a double off the top of the right field wall and a homer to center.
Teams that go deep into October often have an “X factor” that no one, including the team itself, expected. An extra piece just falls in their laps thanks to someone else’s gaffe or just fate. To pick up a 33-year-old switch-hitter in August who can play every infield position and now has 1,644 career hits — and is red-hot, hitting .317 with a .955 OPS with the Nats — is close to baseball lunacy. To pick him up for free, off the street, with Texas paying his salary, just doesn’t happen. But it did. Ride it.
However, common decency requires consideration for second baseman Brian Dozier, who won a Gold Glove in 2017, and first baseman Matt Adams, because both have 20 homers. Adams also has 56 RBI in only 301 at-bats. What about Ryan Zimmerman, the original “Face of the Franchise,” who has looked spry since returning from injury with an .819 OPS — his career norm — for the past month?
Sorry, no room Tuesday. But stay tuned — October can be a long month.
Finally, in a bullpen that recently had no one who could credibly be called a “closer,” who should have that role now that the Nats appear to have two men suitable for the job? Daniel Hudson has a 1.50 ERA in 23 games with the Nationals, including two saves in a doubleheader Tuesday and another Thursday.
Doolittle, in back-to-back scoreless innings Tuesday and Wednesday, looked like his old rising-fastball self but perhaps with some newly added polish on and confidence in his slider and change-up. Does one set up the other? Or should Dave Martinez navigate the last six outs by matchup?
By now, that common thread in all these “dilemmas” should be obvious. In all these tough decisions, the Nats have nothing but good to wonderful options. And the reason is simple. This team is in 99 percent perfect health, something that hardly ever happens as October arrives. And the whole roster is flat-out loaded.
Sometimes that Nationals power is disguised behind platoons or quasi-platoons where players rotate through various positions. That’s why few people notice — and even fewer analyze — how the Nats can be tied for second in scoring in the NL, barely behind the famous Dodgers and even with the stacked Atlanta Braves.
Teams with depth, especially veteran depth that can be injury-prone, seldom reach the final weekend of a season with all of their options intact. And a team with a huge weakness, such as the Nats’ 5.69 ERA bullpen, seldom arrives at this stage looking — for the first time — like it might become functional if it could get deep into October when a multitude of days off make almost every reliever better.
In fact, they are so healthy and so deep that, if the Nats face Milwaukee, they may be uniquely suited to combat a team with a bullpen so deep that the Brewers can, in a wild-card game, start playing matchups as if the third inning is the seventh. Look for the Nats to carry 15 or 16 position players to match moves.
“It feels good that, all of a sudden, guys are swinging the bats a lot better,” Martinez said. “Our pitching’s doing good. Our bullpen’s pitching better. Everything seems to be clicking right now. So we’re in a good place right now.”
Don’t race to find the nearest sportsbook. Wild-card games are incredibly intense and utterly unpredictable — a fog of war field of battle waiting for an unexpected hero who could be the third pinch hitter off the bench. Even if the Nats advance, the Houston Astros and Dodgers are even more loaded — on paper.
But for the past 108 games — two-thirds of a season — the Nats have played at a 106-win pace and outscored foes at a rate appropriate to a 110-win team. Nobody, not the best in either league, is much better than the Nats right now.
When the playoffs are about to start, “right now” may be the most essential phrase in the game. It doesn’t matter what your club looked like in spring or summer. What does it look like at this instant?
The Nats have been doing many things right for more than four months. If they can get past Tuesday, an enormous if, they may have world enough and time to show they can keep doing it for quite a bit longer.