Washington Nationals

Mad Max saves Nationals season and hands it off to Stephen Strasburg

Max Scherzer got the win for the Nationals in a must-win Game 4 on Monday. Now it’s Stephen Strasburg’s turn in Game 5 if Washington hopes to upset the Dodgers

Even when the Nationals fell behind the Dodgers two games to one in the NLDS, all hope wasn’t lost in the nation’s capital. And that’s because of the two pitchers Washington was prepared to send out against the Dodgers the final two games.

Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner, did his job in a 6-1 win in Game 4 on Monday. Scherzer picked up his first postseason victory in six years after going seven innings at Nationals Park, giving up four hits and striking out seven. The only run he allowed was a solo home run to Justin Turner with two outs in the first. Scherzer left the bases loaded in his final inning, pumping his fist after getting Joc Pederson to ground out to second.

Scherzer had been winless over his past seven starts in October, his last victory coming in Game 4 of the 2013 ALDS while he was pitching for the Detroit Tigers. His only prior appearance in this series came back in Game 2 when he struck out the side after coming into the game in relief for the bottom of the eighth inning.

The Nationals winning pitcher in that game on Friday is also going to take the mound at Dodger Stadium for Game 5 on Wednesday. Stephen Strasburg is fast earning a reputation as one of the premier postseason pitchers of this, or any, generation. He allowed just one run on three hits to the Dodgers in his first start this series, pitching six innings and striking out 10. In five career postseason games, four of them starts, he’s given up two earned runs over 28 innings, good for a 0.64 ERA. That’s better than Mariano Rivera, Madison Bumgarner, Sandy Koufax and every other pitcher in history with that many innings.

The Nationals go into Game 5 full of confidence that they can pull off the upset and deny the 106-win Dodgers a third straight trip to the World Series. But it’s not going to be as easy as just sending Strasburg to the mound, because the Dodgers have their own stellar postseason pitcher in their arsenal.

Walker Buehler may not have a lot of postseason experience. What he does have is a 97 m.p.h. fastball—fifth-best among all starting pitchers this season—and an already solid record of shutting down opponents in his short career. The 25-year-old right-hander started Game 1 for the Dodgers, holding the Nationals to one hit, a Juan Soto single in the second inning, while shutting them out for six innings. In his past three postseason starts dating back to last season, Buehler has given up one run in 17.2 innings.

And when Buehler is done for the night, the Dodgers have the luxury of bringing in Clayton Kershaw out of the bullpen. Any team would be more than happy to give a three-time Cy Young Award winner the ball in a winner-take-all game, but Kershaw’s record when the Dodgers are facing elimination is cause for concern. He’s pitched in nine games with the Dodgers season on the line in his career and has a 5.23 ERA in such games. He did come out of the bullpen to get the save against the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS three years ago and rebounded from a shaky start in Game 2 to retire 12 of the last 14 batters he faced.

The Nationals also have a starter ready out of the bullpen in case Strasburg can’t last deep into the game. Patrick Corbin already pitched in relief once this series, and it was one of the worst performances any relief pitcher has had in postseason history; only one only pitcher had ever given up six runs in less than an inning. Corbin did pitch six innings of one-run ball in Game 1. The Nationals certainly hope his Game 3 outing was an aberration, and manager Dave Martinez won’t hesitate to go to him again if the season is at stake.

Strasburg vs. Buehler has all the makings of a classic pitching matchup that’s becoming rarer in these days of openers and short hooks. The Nationals should like their chances of advancing to the NLCS for the first time since 1981. The Dodgers, meanwhile, will have all the pressure to close out a series they seemed like they had well in hand before the Nationals called upon their two aces to rescue them.

Next: Cardinals survive to see Game 5 in classic NLDS

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