LOS ANGELES — Max Scherzer said he had not even worked up a sweat when he trotted out of the Washington Nationals’ bullpen late Friday night. He’s used to warming up when the sun is still out, after all.
But with the Nationals up by two runs over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of their National League division series, Washington Manager Dave Martinez turned to Scherzer, their veteran starter, to protect the lead in the eighth inning.
The strategy worked. Again.
The bullpen door swinging open has been a source of trepidation for the Nationals this season, as their relievers had the worst E.R.A. (5.66) in the majors. The sight of Scherzer running out undoubtedly brought different emotions.
Scherzer was dominant, striking out the side in the eighth inning on 14 pitches — including a 99 m.p.h. fastball — to help the Nationals win, 4-2, and even the best-of-five series at one game apiece as the teams head to Washington for Games 3 and 4.
Friday was the fourth time Scherzer — a three-time Cy Young Award winner — has pitched out of the bullpen in the postseason, but he has had mixed results: 1-1 with a 6.75 E.R.A. Against the Dodgers, though, the 35-year-old Scherzer pitched like a true setup man.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said of Scherzer pitching the eighth.
It was not the first time Nationals Manager Dave Martinez used one of his star starters out of the bullpen — Stephen Strasburg did so in Washington’s wild card game victory on Tuesday — but going to Scherzer this early in the series was a drastic move.
“It’s what the team needs,” Scherzer said. “When your number gets called, you’ve got to go out there and produce.”
Strasburg started on Friday, allowing just one run on three hits and striking out 10 in six innings to earn the win. He lowered his career postseason E.R.A. to 0.64. It was a role reversal from Tuesday’s wild card game, when Scherzer started and Strasburg followed with three shutout innings of relief.
Then Strasburg started Friday after only two full days of rest.
“I’m very routine-oriented and I would say my younger self would be a little bit alarmed by it,” the 31-year-old Strasburg said. But now, he added, “it’s just another challenge.”
Starting pitching is the top priority in the postseason, but the Nationals have used their formidable starters in relief to work around a shaky bullpen.
“Those guys are a big part of why we are here,” Martinez said of his relievers. “I’ve said this before, they have had their struggles, but they understand it’s one game, we play for one game. Our biggest emphasis all year was to go 1-0, and now it’s that time.”
The series is tied at one game each, and the teams now head to Nationals Park with the possibility of Scherzer starting Game 3 on Sunday. “Whenever they want me to pitch, I’ll pitch,” he said after Friday’s game.
Scherzer was so good and efficient that he looked like he could have continued in the ninth inning, but Martinez told Scherzer before the game he wouldn’t do that. Still, the manager considered it.
“Trust me, I was biting my lip, scratching my head,” Martinez said.
Martinez opted for his closer, Daniel Hudson, for the ninth. He got the job done, but it was an adventure after Justin Turner smacked a double and Martinez opted to intentionally walk Max Muncy with two outs. Hudson walked Will Smith — who represented the go-ahead run — to load the bases, and then struck out Corey Seager to earn the save.
Dodgers batters struck out 17 times in the loss — 13 of which were at the hands of Strasburg and Scherzer.
One day earlier, Los Angeles starter Walker Buehler was dominant in powering the Dodgers to a 6-0 Game 1 victory, but the Nationals didn’t crumble in Game 2. Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers struggled early in his start Friday, allowing three runs in six innings and hitting two batters. Strasburg pitched with a 3-0 cushion after two innings.
The rest of the Nationals marveled at the way Scherzer and Strasburg were helping in different ways, but they were not surprised.
“They’ve been doing that all year,” Hudson said. “Stephen was out there dominating. Max out of the pen is a different animal. He’s dominant, too. Most of the time when they have that adrenaline going late in the game, it’s fun to watch.”
Martinez said he would wait until Saturday to see how Scherzer feels before making a decision on a Game 3 starter. If not Scherzer, Martinez will turn to Anibal Sanchez.
Either way, Strasburg and Scherzer have already carried a heavy load, and in unfamiliar roles, to keep the Nationals in the series against a Dodgers team that has punished opposing pitchers all year.
“I think everybody would do that,” Scherzer said. “It’s not just us. There’s 25 guys in here that play at that same level. From the outside looking in, maybe it looks like that but this clubhouse we’ve got a really good group here and everyone is ready to lay it on the line for each other.”