The Nationals stayed alive to force Game 7, handing the ball to their 3-time Cy Young Award winner coming off a painful injury
After a wild Game 6 featuring bat carrying, manager blowups, and an umpire’s call that is still being debated, the Washington Nationals did what they do best, stay alive.
The Nationals weren’t expected to make the playoffs after starting the year 19-31. They weren’t supposed to get past the Brewers in the Wild Card game after trailing by two runs with two outs in the eighth inning. They definitely weren’t supposed to beat the NL-leading Dodgers in the NLDS. And, after dropping three straight to the Houston Astros at home, they weren’t supposed to prolong the World Series.
But that’s just what they’ve done after a 7-2 victory in Game 6 on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park that forces a decisive seventh game in Houston on Wednesday. The good news for the Nationals is that the player who best embodies the fighting spirit of the entire club is good and ready to go for Game 7.
Max Scherzer was forced out of his scheduled Game 5 start after experiencing neck spasms. He was in so much pain that he was unable to dress himself. But now, just three days later, Scherzer will take the mound for the biggest game of his life.
Should Scherzer carry the Nationals to victory, it will go down as one of the most inspiring stories of playing through pain, right alongside Curt Schilling’s bloody sock or Willis Reed emerging from the locker room at Madison Square Garden. Scherzer, though, has done it before just this season.
On June 18, while taking batting practice, Scherzer attempted to lay down a bunt and instead hit the ball right into his face, breaking his nose. The next day, sporting a black eye, he pitched seven shutout innings against ex-Nat Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Scherzer said after Game 6 that he received a cortisone shot in his neck and feels fine heading into Game 7. “Should be good,” he said. “It’s Game 7. Let’s go.”
“Mad Max” won’t be the only Nationals player to return from injury in time for Game 7. Catcher Kurt Suzuki has missed the last three games with a hip strain but will be back in the lineup on Wednesday. That’s good news for Scherzer, who pitches much better when throwing to Suzuki compared to the Nationals other catcher, Yan Gomes. In 15 starts this season with Suzuki behind the plate, Scherzer went 11-4 with a 2.08 ERA; when Gomes caught him, he went 3-9 with a 4.09 ERA.
Scherzer has already beaten the Astros once this series, outduelling Gerrit Cole in Game 1 and giving up two runs in five innings. But the Astros made him work, forcing him to throw 112 pitches. Since pitch tracking began, only three pitchers—Mark Thurmond in 1984, Juan Guzman in 1993, and Al Leiter in 1997—have thrown that many pitches in a World Series game in less than six innings.
Opposing Scherzer in the first matchup between Cy Young Award winners in World Series Game 7 history will be Zack Greinke. The Astros acquired Greinke at the July trade deadline precisely for big games like this, but there are some question marks around him heading into the game. The first is his temperament. Greinke is cool enough that he might not even notice it’s Game 7. Or he might want to avoid the spotlight so much that he struggles under the glare of a big moment. The other is that he’s gotten past the fifth inning just once in four starts this postseason. In Game 3 he gave up only one run, but the Nationals constantly threatened him with 10 baserunners in 4.2 innings.
Should either pitcher not last long in the game, all hands will be on deck and willing to come out of the bullpen. The Nationals will have Anibal Sanchez and Patrick Corbin. The Astros could bring in Cole on two days rest in a performance much like that of Madison Bumgarner in 2014.
Scherzer, though, will do everything in his power to ensure that using those two starters out of the bullpen will be unnecessary. He’s waited his entire 12-year career to pitch in a game like this, and if he’s shown anything in a career that will one day lead him to Cooperstown, it’s that he won’t let his team down.