The Washington Nationals turned a bullpen day for one of their aces into a postseason game day, and they may run more starters out for spot stints as a bridge to their unreliable relievers.
Max Scherzer took an unexpected turn in relief during Washington's 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night, helping to even the best-of-five series at a game apiece. It was his fourth career postseason relief appearance and came after a commanding performance from Stephen Strasburg on the shortest rest of his career.
The move may force the Nationals to bump Scherzer, their scheduled Game 3 starter, back to Game 4. But with Washington leading the 106-win Dodgers on the road, manager Dave Martinez wagered the one-inning outing was his best bet to fly home with a win.
"You can see it in Max's eyes that he was ready to dominate," closer Daniel Hudson said. "Max out of the 'pen is a different animal."
Since Madison Bumgarner's five-inning save for San Francisco in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, it's become increasingly common for ace starters to be called on for October relief. Those outings have usually come in win-or-go home situations — rarely in the second game of a series.
Scherzer's appearance Friday night may signal a shift. After starting in Tuesday's NL wild-card game, the 35-year-old was scheduled to throw a bullpen as part of his between-start routine. Martinez simply had Scherzer get his work in during the game.
"I felt I could really go one inning and recover from that," Scherzer said.
The Nationals, with their lights-out top of the rotation and rickety relief corps, could be tempted to squeeze similar outings out of Strasburg and Patrick Corbin this month.
"Before we even got to the playoffs, our game plan was to try to utilize these guys the best way possible without disrupting their starts," Martinez said. "We talked to all of them, and they have all been on board."
It's a risky maneuver — pitchers don't generally max out during between-start bullpen sessions, and Scherzer could be limited in Game 3 if he starts. But it's a necessary one for a club trying to limit exposure for its relievers, who tied the Dodgers for the NL high with 29 blown saves during the regular season.
And if it works for the Nats, more clubs will certainly try it.
"This is the playoffs," Scherzer said. "You lay it on the line every time you touch that field."
Scherzer planned to rest and recover as much as possible on Saturday, a travel day for both teams, with hopes of being ready to take on MLB ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu in Washington.
If he doesn't go, Martinez indicated right-hander Anibal Sánchez would start.
"We play for one game," Martinez said. "Our biggest emphasis all year was to go 1-0, and now it's that time."
Scherzer's last relief appearance in the postseason didn't go nearly as well. He pitched in a decisive Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS against the Chicago Cubs, entering the game with a 4-3 lead.
He got two quick outs before the bottom dropped out. Scherzer gave up four runs (two earned) and three hits to go with a walk, a strikeout and a hit batsman in one inning.
"With what happened in the Cubs series, how he kind of got some tough breaks, for him to come in there and do that, it was pretty cool to see," teammate Ryan Zimmerman said of the turnaround.
Scherzer turned it over to Hudson for a tense ninth, and sure enough, trouble ensued.
The closer loaded the bases with two outs before striking out Corey Seager for the save. The inning also included a twisting, falling grab by third baseman Anthony Rendon on Cody Bellinger's pop fly in shallow left field, as well as a gutsy intentional walk by Martinez that brought the winning run to bat.
Martinez intentionally walked Max Muncy, who hit a solo shot off Sean Doolittle in the seventh, before Hudson walked Will Smith to load the bases. Seager fouled off four fastballs before Hudson got him to swing over a slider.
Scherzer followed the roller coaster action from the clubhouse.
"It's all pins and needles," he said. "That's the postseason. It's like this every single time."