WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer signed a $210 million contract to be the Washington Nationals' ace, and so far has earned every penny of it. He has two Cy Young awards on his résumé and stands a good chance of winning a third this season. He's an alpha dog's alpha dog who was born to start big games. Yet right now, he might very well be Washington's second-best option to start Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
Because Stephen Strasburg.
In his final regular-season outing Friday, Strasburg dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving up only two hits over 7⅔ shutout innings in Washington's 6-1 victory. The performance, in which Strasburg retired the first 14 batters he faced and looked as dominant as he has all year, was merely the latest in a string of stellar starts for the Nats' right-hander.
Since returning from the disabled list Aug. 19, the 29-year-old has given up no earned runs in six of eight starts and has fanned 63 batters against only 10 walks. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his 0.86 ERA since the All-Star break is the second-lowest ever by a pitcher in the second half of a season (minimum of 10 starts) behind Jake Arrieta (0.75 in 2015). Just how good has Strasburg been? By the time he hit the showers Friday night, he had leapfrogged Scherzer on the ERA leaderboard. All of which raises the question: Has Strasburg leapfrogged his teammate in the postseason rotation?
"You guys can read into whatever you want," Nats skipper Dusty Baker said before Friday's game when asked if the order of Washington's starters this weekend (Strasburg/Scherzer/Gio Gonzalez as opposed to Scherzer/Strasbrug/Gonzalez) might possibly be a playoff portent. Baker paused for a moment, flashed a mischievous grin, then continued. "Either way, that's a pretty good order, isn't it?"
Either way, Baker gets a guy with Game 1 experience. In 2014, his only career postseason appearance, Strasburg started Washington's NLDS opener against the Giants. Scherzer has started Game 1 each of the past three times his teams have been in a playoff series ('13 and '14 with Detroit, '16 with Washington).
Either way, Baker would have the liberty of choosing whomever he so desires to pitch a potential Game 5. Thanks to the travel days in the playoff schedule, whichever guy starts Game 1 next Friday would be coming back on an extra day of rest (five days) for Game 5 on Oct. 12, and the guy who starts Game 2 next Saturday would be working on normal rest (four days) in an elimination game.
Either way, Baker should be able to rest relatively easy next week in the run-up to the division series, knowing that he has one of the best pitchers in the game taking the ball as his club embarks on its quest to win a playoff series for the first time in Nationals history.
Although Baker has been around for only one of Washington's early playoff exits, Ryan Zimmerman has been around for all three and knows full well what it means to have Strasburg -- who missed both the 2012 and 2016 playoffs -- and Scherzer pitching in the same postseason rotation for the first time, regardless of order.
"If you look at teams that make deep runs or usually have a run in the playoffs, the starting pitching and pitching overall is the backbone of those runs," said Zimmerman, who notched a career-high four extra-base hits Friday (two doubles, two homers). "You're not usually going to go out and score a ton of runs in the playoffs. So to have two guys like that ... it's a luxury."
As for deciding who pitches Game 1, well, everyone should have such problems. Everyone except for Baker.
"It's not a problem," Washington's manager said after Friday's win, again with the mischievous grin. Only this time, with more mischief and less grin. "We know what we want to do."
Not that he's interested in showing his cards anytime soon.
"We'll let you know next Thursday."