In the bottom of the sixth inning Thursday night, the dormancy in the Nationals Park home bullpen signified a show of faith in Max Scherzer. Manager Dusty Baker hoped for three quick outs in the seventh, for Scherzer to perpetuate his dominance, to continue carrying the Washington Nationals into the National League Championship Series. He did not consider pulling his ace, and if he had he may have confronted revolt in his dugout.
“He’s the guy,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s the guy you wanted out there. That’s our guy. If you had to do it all over again, you put him out there. If he got through that inning without a lot of pitches, shoot, think about letting him go back out there.”
Baker faced and made a dizzying number of choices in the seventh inning, the agonizing frame that led to the Nationals’ ruin in their 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS. The first — and, for him, simplest — came in keeping Scherzer in the game after 98 pitches, another tortured what-if in the Nationals’ brief and agonizing postseason history.
Scherzer threw one pitch, a fastball Joc Pederson hammered over the left field fence to tie the score. By the end of the top of the seventh, six different pitchers had appeared — a record for one postseason inning — and a 1-0 lead had turned into 4-1 deficit.
Start here: Not one choice Baker made directly cost the Nationals their season. The pitching changes Baker made can and will be debated. All of them could be defended at least, justified at most. “It’s easy to say after the fact,” Baker said, the truest lament a manager can make. But all of the choices, in some manner, backfired during an inning that prevented the Nationals from claiming their first playoff series victory.
“The wheels kind of fell off for us there,” left fielder Jayson Werth said. “We just couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
It began with Scherzer walking to the mound in the seventh. Baker had reasons to stick with him. The Nationals paid him $210 million two winters ago so he could pitch these games, so they could place their season in his hands. Scherzer had been impregnable, allowing four hits, all singles, and extricating himself from a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth inning. This season, Scherzer had faced 60 batters after throwing his 100th pitch, and they had hit .185 against him.
“You know, a couple years ago when they took [Jordan] Zimmerman out of the game and everybody was crying about that, why they took him out of that game,” Baker said, referencing Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS. “And if I had taken him out — I mean, Max said he was still good. We were hoping to get another inning out of him.”
Baker had planned to ride Scherzer as long as he could. Across Major League Baseball in the past week of playoffs, managers have used quick hooks and turned the game over to their relievers, choosing the value of matchups over the power of a tiring workhorse. The leash of a starter, in most places, has shortened. The Dodgers used their starter, Rich Hill, to record jut eight outs before bringing in setup man Joe Blanton in the third inning. But Scherzer is a different animal than Hill or most pitchers, and Baker intended to act like it.
“How do you take out your — a guy in a 1-0 game?” Baker said. “And Max is capable of going 100-some-odd pitches.”
But Baker also had reason to pull Scherzer before the seventh. All pitchers pay a penalty for facing a lineup for a third time, even those as dominant as Scherzer. This season, opponents batted .178 against Scherzer when facing him for the first or second time but .246 with a .743 OPS when seeing him a third trip through.
Scherzer had surpassed 98 pitches in 25 of his 34 starts, so he had ample experience pitching so deep. But not all pitches are created equal — in the fifth, he had grinded through three laborious outs, protecting a 1-0 lead with heavy traffic on the bases.
There was also the batter at the plate. Pederson hit .125 with one home run in 77 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this season. Against right-handers, Pederson hit .269 with a stellar .918 OPS and 24 homers. Baker may have invited a right-handed pinch hitter had he used Sammy Solis, Oliver Perez or Marc Rzepczynski, but he could have avoided Pederson facing a tiring right-hander, the kind of pitcher he feasts on.
“Just because if Max gets in trouble, you would hate to take him out of the game early,” Baker said before the game. “Because you’ve seen Max pitch himself out of trouble where the average guy can’t do that. You tend to stick longer with your aces than you would, you know, anybody else on your staff.”
Scherzer threw one last pitch, a 95-mph fastball over the outside corner, just above the knees. Pederson blasted it to left field, into the second row of seats over the wall. Baker had put his faith in Scherzer, and the Nationals had lost the lead.
Once Scherzer exited, the inning spiraled. Baker called first for Rzepczynski, who walked Yasmani Grandal on four pitches. Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts pinch-hit for Andrew Toles with right-hander Howie Kendrick, which promoted another change from Baker. Blake Treinen trotted in from right field to replace Rzepczynski.
Treinen’s high-90s sinker makes him effective against right-handers, but Kendrick lined a single to left field. Treinen struck out yet another pinch hitter, Charlie Culberson, as he tried to bunt.
On the on-deck circle loomed Chase Utley, who had swatted the go-ahead hit off Treinen in Game 4. Baker, facing a spot almost identical to that game, opted this time for Sammy Solis. Roberts inserted backup catcher Carlos Ruiz, long a pest for the Nationals during his years in Philadelphia, to pinch-hit. Ruiz cracked a single to left field, pinch-runner Austin Barnes scooted home from second, and the Nationals suddenly trailed.
Solis remained in the game to face one more hitter, and he retired Corey Seager for the second out. If Seager is not the Dodgers’ best hitter, then the man who followed, Justin Turner, is. Turner also carried peculiar splits: This season, though he bats right-handed, he hit .305 against righties and just .209 vs. lefties.
Despite the numbers, Baker chose a right-hander, Shawn Kelley, to replace Solis. The move backfired: Turner smoked a triple off the center field fence, scoring both runs and stretching the deficit to 4-1.
To make matters worse, Kelley, a pitcher with a history of Tommy John surgery, exited after he lost the feeling in his right hand. “I have unfortunately felt that before,” Kelley said. “I was pretty confident there wasn’t damage to my ligament or anything. It’s tough to go on when you only have feeling in two fingers. And scary at the same time.”
It forced Baker to trudge to the mound once more, inserting Oliver Perez. Facing Adrian Gonzalez, Perez finally ended the unhinged inning. Afterward, there was no clubhouse grousing about any of the choices Baker made.
“This is some of the best baseball I’ve ever been a part of,” Werth said. “Dusty did a great job leading us.”
The Nationals would rally in the bottom half, pulling to within a single run. The damage had been inflicted, and it would leave another scar on Washington’s baseball psyche. The moves that will be debated and the pitchers who could not deliver combined to spoil another season. The home bullpen at Nationals Park turned dormant again late Thursday night, and it will remain so through the cold winter.