Who starts the wild-card game for the Washington Nationals?
At some point, with each successive start in which Max Scherzer is not vintage Max Scherzer, it becomes the obvious question. The obvious answer, of course, is Max Scherzer. Because there's no way manager Davey Martinez (or any other skipper in his right mind) would ever start anybody else.
But at some point, whether it's Sept. 18 (today) or Oct. 1 (the date of the NL wild-card game), or some date in between, Martinez has to at least start entertaining the notion that maybe -- just maybe -- the obvious answer isn't the right answer.
Let's get the colossal caveat out of the way. It's entirely possible the Nats, who started this month with a seemingly impenetrable seven-game cushion between them and the team that was in third place in the NL wild-card race, could miss the postseason completely. Thanks to a decidedly bumpy September schedule, that margin has already been whittled down to 2.5 games. But if they can hold off the St. Chiwaukee Cubrewerals, then two weeks from now, the Nationals will find themselves knee-deep in a one-game, winner-take-all scenario. In which case they'll want their best pitcher on the mound.
Two and a half months ago, it was absolutely inarguable that Washington's best pitcher was Scherzer. Coming off a June in which he went 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA and earned NL Pitcher of the Month honors, the three-time Cy Young winner looked like he was headed for more hardware. But in early July, Scherzer hit the injured list with back issues. He spent three weeks on the shelf before making his return. A couple days prior, his manager admitted that part of the calculus involved in determining his ace's exact return date was the wild-card game: By starting July 25 against the Colorado Rockies, Scherzer would be perfectly lined up to face Opponent TBD on Oct. 1.
"I'm hoping that we're not the wild-card team," said Martinez back in July. "But yeah, we sat down and mapped everything out to that day."
At the time, Martinez's machinations seemed a tad cart-before-horse. But when you've got a horse like Max Scherzer -- an insatiable innings-eater who's been as durable as any hurler in baseball over the past decade -- the exact location of the cart doesn't really matter. Until it does.
After making his return against Colorado (which, in retrospect, was a rush job), Scherzer landed on the IL again with a strained rhomboid and was sidelined for another four weeks. Since coming back, the 35-year-old righty has looked like something other than Washington's best pitcher. In five starts, he's posted a 3.91 ERA and has yielded 24 hits in 25.1 innings -- decent numbers by major league standards, but subpar for Scherzer. Opposing batters have posted a .727 OPS that's more than 100 points higher than what he allowed prior to being injured (.597). Two starts ago, he appeared to take a big step forward, limiting a potent Braves lineup to just two hits over six innings while striking out nine. But his most recent outing, also against Atlanta, seemed regressive: Five innings, seven hits, three runs.
"Just not able to locate quite as well, and that's something that's got to change and make an improvement upon," said Scherzer. "Just being able to locate the fastball a little bit better and force their hand a little bit better in the locations I want to. Just a culmination of everything. Just being able to execute the pitches where you want to. I feel like the action on every pitch is pretty much where I want it. Just now it's coming down to location. There's little things I think I need to sharpen up mechanically to make sure that happens."
The million-dollar question is, how long will that take? According to Martinez, because of all the down time Scherzer's had, he's essentially in spring training mode. In other words, even though the calendar says September, it's more like March. If that's the case, October could feel like April, which could be bad news for the Nats: In his first six starts this season, Washington's ace posted an ERA north of four.
Despite that, with less than two weeks left in the regular season, all signs still point to Scherzer starting the wild-card game. And why not? Besides the three Cy Youngs, he also has two no-hitters and one Hall of Fame résumé. A seven-time All-Star with a $210 million contract, he stomps around the mound like the Tasmanian Devil and goes by the moniker of Mad Max. In other words, he's precisely the dude you want on the hill in an all-or-nothing contest -- if he's in midseason form. And if he's not? Well, that's when it's time to think long and hard about Plan B.
As contingency plans go, Stephen Strasburg is as good as it gets. A Tommy John survivor who's battled injuries throughout his career, the consensus on the former top overall pick has always been something along the lines of, "when healthy, he's one of the best in the game." So far, through the first five and a half months of this season, the 31-year-old righty has managed to stay whole, and the results have borne out the scouting report: Strasburg ranks second in the National League in strikeouts (235), first in innings (196), and seventh in WHIP (1.06). He is leading the league in wins (17) and is on the short list of Cy Young contenders. Given Scherzer's health issues, the simple truth is this: Strasburg has been the Nats' most dependable hurler this season.
Actually, that last statement isn't necessarily true. You could argue lefty Patrick Corbin, who's excelled in his first campaign with Washington after signing a six-year, $140-million deal in December, has been every bit as dependable as Strasburg. But Corbin, who rivals Strasburg in pretty much every statistical category this year, is lacking in one major area: Playoff experience. Now in his seventh big-league season, the former Diamondbacks hurler has never pitched in the postseason. As for Strasburg, his most recent playoff appearance was the stuff legends are made of.
It's hard to fathom that Strasburg, a notoriously fragile hurler whose team famously shut him down prior to the 2012 playoffs and who missed the 2016 postseason due to injury, could become an October legend. But that's what happens when you go rogue against the defending champs, like Strasburg did in 2017. In two NLDS starts against the Cubs that season, Washington's deputy ace was downright dominant, allowing six hits and zero earned runs over 14 innings, with 22 punchouts. Adding to the lore is that in the second of those outings, Strasburg helped the Nats avoid elimination a day after manager Dusty Baker declared him too ill to pitch. The following day, it was Scherzer who imploded in a rare relief outing, as the team blew a Game 5 lead and -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- failed to win a playoff series for the fourth time in four tries since moving to D.C.
Did Strasburg's gutty 2017 performance single-handedly elevate him to Madison Bumgarner status? Hardly. But it's difficult to ignore the fact that Strasburg now owns a career ERA of 0.47 in the postseason (Scherzer's is 3.73, albeit over a much larger sample size). It's also difficult to ignore that the current version of Max Scherzer is not vintage Max Scherzer. But difficult isn't the same as impossible.
Should the Nationals find themselves in the wild-card game two weeks from now, it would take unusual courage for their manager to not write Scherzer's name in the starting lineup. After all, Washington is still trying to get over the hump. Still trying to win that first playoff series. Nobody knows that better than Martinez, who was hired to replace Baker after the 2017 season for the express purpose of hump-hurdling.
A lot can happen in a fortnight. Maybe by then, there won't be much of a decision to make at all. Maybe Scherzer will be lights out over his final three starts of the regular season. In that case, forget we ever had this conversation. Similarly, if Scherzer has trouble staying healthy and winds up back on the IL (or if Strasburg breaks down), then this whole discussion is moot.
But anything in between, and the Nationals will have to ask themselves the obvious question. The answer might not be quite so obvious.