Luckily for the Washington Nationals, the Phillies and the Pirates aren’t in the postseason. This week, they have made the Nationals look like they were preparing for a fathers-vs.-families softball game, not a National League Division Series against the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs that starts Friday at Nationals Park. This is readiness?
In the past six games, four of them losses, starters Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark have been hit hard, Sean Doolittle and Brandon Kintzler have blown saves and Bryce Harper has gone 3 for 18 since returning from 42 games on the disabled list. Jayson Werth and Matt Wieters look a bit better but only in the context of their averages — .226 and .225. If only they could hit more than their weights. The games were meaningless, but the images left behind weren’t without weight.
Suddenly, it’s clear that Washington’s October baseball mood is linked to two men far more than any others. We knew it on Opening Day and are sharply reminded of it now. The Nats are built on Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
This pair of aces, the best such duo in baseball this season, are paid $385 million on long-term deals because, over the past two years, the Nats are 86-31 when they start. When anybody else starts, they are 106-101.
In two years, Scherzer is 36-13 with a 2.75 ERA and ratios, relative to his 429 innings, that are absurdist: almost twice as many strikeouts (552) as hits (291).
“I was really sharp with all my pitches . . . really, really happy with my stuff. I’ve been working so hard to get back,” Scherzer said of his 54-pitch Saturday. Though dogged by minor pains since spring training, he has had one of his best years. Now the whole package is finally back together — if the hamstring “tweak” allows.
Strasburg is a similar alien: 30-8 with a 3.01 ERA. Even more pertinent, he is the best and scariest pitcher since the All-Star Game with a 0.86 ERA in 10 starts.
It’s not true to say that “they are the team,” even though Scherzer deserves his third Cy Young Award this season and Strasburg should finish second or third in that battle with Clayton Kershaw.
But at a time when the Nats have hit worse for four months in a row, falling to 23rd in Major League Baseball in runs in September, the value of having not one but two extraordinary aces has never been more vital.
While it’s reassuring that the Nats (except for the loss of Adam Eaton) are healthy and possess a superior bullpen, it is likely that Ace A and 1A need to spark the postseason immediately, then hope more Nats catch fire.
The Cubs are already aflame. They lead the NL in wins and MLB in runs since the all-star break. Their first-half hardships are history. Who’s going to stop them?
The Nats are one of the few teams that might have an answer.
On Friday night, Strasburg had no-hit stuff immediately, in command of all five of his devastating pitches, but had to leave in the eighth inning, after allowing just two singles, because of a cramp in his left calf.
The next night, Scherzer had what he says might have been his best stuff and command of the season. He allowed only one hit but also had to leave prematurely with cramps in his right hamstring in the fourth inning.
This means the Nats better worry about fixing those cramps, especially Strasburg’s because he has had them as his pitch count rises in a few other starts. But for every other playoff team, first in line the Cubs, those weekend showings mean they better worry about how dominant Scherzer and Strasburg both look.
In Scherzer’s past 65 starts in 2016-17, the Nats are 45-20. In Strasburg’s past 65 starts (back to mid-2015), the Nats are a lovely, loony 52-13.
Fixing the Nats’ cramps is probably a relatively small issue. Stay hydrated. Load up on electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium. And stay away from diuretics, such as caffeine. Don’t have seven Red Bulls before every game like one ex-Nat outfielder.
On Sunday, Scherzer already was bouncing up and down in front of his locker, then running in the outfield to show how decent he felt. He will need to be monitored. But even if he starts in Game 2 on Saturday against the Cubs rather than Game 1, he could pitch in Game 5 on regular rest. We know this because Scherzer counted it out on his fingers so reporters could understand.
And what about warding off those cramps, Max?
“Eat your bananas,” Scherzer said. “Monkeys never cramp.”
Since MLB expanded its playoffs with wild cards in 1995 the importance of an ace — or dual aces — has become perhaps the central strategy feature of October.
World Series titles already in this century and the names of star starters, sometimes solitary but often in tandems, are linked permanently: Madison Bumgarner (2014), Jon Lester (2016 and 2007), Chris Carpenter (2011 and 2006), Tim Lincecum (2010), Curt Schilling (2007, 2004 and 2001), Andy Pettitte (2009), Cole Hamels (2008), Josh Beckett (2007 and 2003) and Randy Johnson (2001). Some helped in other years, too.
It’s almost hard to accept the degree to which it’s essential, from the Nats’ perspective, that either Scherzer or Strasburg or both carry them as far as they are destined to go. It matters whether Harper, who looked better Sunday with a walk and two line-drive singles, one to left, the other to right, finds his batting stroke. And, for a certainty, bullpens are used more creatively in the postseason now.
But, until we get considerable data to the contrary, the starting point for championships is still: Aces rule October.
Having such fellows is good in the regular season. Having a pair of aces in the postseason is suddenly fabulous because those two men go from starting 35 percent to 40 percent of a team’s games to starting 60 percent to almost 70 percent of them.
As an example of how too much of a good thing can be marvelous, Johnson and Schilling started 11 of Arizona’s 17 postseason games in 2001 and went 9-1, plus a save. Essentially, two pitchers could win a title almost by themselves.
Mike Rizzo, assistant general manager on that Diamondbacks team, was so impressed by the power of aces in the postseason that as the Nats’ GM, he always has tried to create a dominant pair or even trio. In 2015, the Nats not only had Scherzer and Strasburg but a still-excellent Jordan Zimmermann. No, it didn’t work.
But last winter Rizzo was the runner-up to the Red Sox in the battle for superstar lefty Chris Sale. The White Sox wanted Trea Turner in the deal. No Sale.
Isn’t putting so many of your resources into just two or three amazing pitchers a risky distribution? “If you’re scared,” Rizzo said, “buy a dog.”
There are several intimidating pairs of aces in this postseason: Kershaw and Yu Darvish of the Dodgers, Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray of Arizona, Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel of Houston and two Cubs of your choice.
But the two Nats are the most dominant pair of aces in MLB entering this October, unless Cleveland’s Corey Kluber is looking in the mirror.
“They’re both really focused. And they’re peaking at the right time now,” Wieters, the Nats’ catcher, said.
None of the play-out-the-string annoyances of the past week are likely to matter if the best versions of Scherzer and Strasburg, who have both matched up well with the Cubs the past few years, take the mound Friday and Saturday.
A string of “0’s” with an occasional “1” on the scoreboard has a way of relaxing an entire offense, even one that has sputtered for as long as the Nats.
Nonetheless, it’s a lot of pressure to put on just two men. All the evidence says that they are the right ones. But, just in case, send bananas.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.