Max Scherzer starting Game 3 is best of all worlds for Nationals

After running numerous sprints and throwing on Sunday, Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who injured his hamstring in his last regular-season start, proclaimed himself ready to pitch against the Cubs on Monday. AP Photo/David Banks

CHICAGO -- Off-day workouts during the playoffs can often be meaningless. Don’t tell that to Max Scherzer.

Scherzer spent the better part of Sunday afternoon sweating his tail off on the outfield grass in Wrigleyville. It started with an easy game of catch, which then progressed to a not-so-easy game of catch. Next came high knees, precisely the kind of exercise that someone with a hamstring issue might want to avoid. After that came sprints. Lots and lots of sprints. Ten, to be exact, which is about 10 more than you’d expect from a guy who’s nursing an injury and was 24 hours away from starting one of the most important games in franchise history. Needless to say, Scherzer’s good to go.

“I’m very confident,” said the Nationals' ace, “that as soon as I toe the rubber, I’m going to be good on pitch one.”

Of course, there’s no way he can really know for sure. Not until he gets out there. He even said as much. "We won't know until I'm actually in a game,” said Scherzer on Wednesday, four days after tweaking his right hamstring in his final start of the regular season.

Well, that game is finally here, and it’s not just any game. It’s Game 3 of the National League Division Series, with Scherzer’s Nationals and the defending champion Cubs knotted at one game apiece as Washington endeavors to win its first playoff series in four tries since defecting from Montreal in 2005. If you think Game 3 isn’t an ideal spot to use Scherzer, think again. Truth is, it’s the ideal spot.

Whether folks in and around Washington, D.C., want to admit it, Scherzer was never the right choice for Game 1. Not this year. Sure, he’s on the short list of the game’s best pitchers. Yes, he stands a good chance of winning his third Cy Young Award this season. True, if he spends the next five years doing what he’s done these past five years, he could be headed for Cooperstown. Still, given how absolutely dominant teammate Stephen Strasburg was after the All-Star break (0.86 ERA), and given how banged up Scherzer has been -- he missed two weeks with a neck injury and left another start early, both of which seemed to affect his performance in the second half -- Strasburg had Game 1 written all over him. That was before the hammy heard 'round the District.

Once Scherzer suffered his hamstring injury and it became clear that Strasburg would start the opener (wherein he was dominant yet again, allowing three hits and no earnies in seven innings, while whiffing 10), the only benefit of starting Scherzer in Game 2 (as opposed to Game 3) was that because of the travel days tucked into the NLDS schedule, he would be an option to come back in Game 5 on normal rest if the series lasted that long and if manager Dusty Baker chose to go that route. But going that route would be to ignore the very simple truth that, over the past couple of months, Strasburg has been Washington’s best starting pitcher, not to mention the NL’s best pitcher. In other words, if the series goes five games and Baker has to use one member of his four-man rotation a second time for all the marbles, Strasburg should be the guy. That doesn’t even factor in the cost of potentially rushing Scherzer back instead of giving him a couple of extra days to heal his hammy. Which brings us to Game 3.

By coming to their senses and waiting until Game 3 to start Scherzer -- whether it was a conscious choice on Washington’s part or merely the fate that was dictated by the hamstring gods -- the Nationals get to have their cake and eat it too. (Which, if you think about it, isn’t really that hard; all you need is, like, a fork.) They get their ace and $210 million man, whose bulldog mentality is as much a part of what separates him as is his repertoire, taking the mound in what’s turned out to be the pivotal game of the series. Not only that, they get him taking said mound on the road, where Scherzer -- much like his team -- has been better than at Nats Park (3.25 ERA at home, 1.82 away). And they get him early enough in the series (i.e. not Game 4) that should Baker be inclined to use his No. 1 out of the bullpen in Game 5, as Dave Roberts did with Clayton Kershaw when the Dodgers beat the Nats in the 2016 NLDS, he can do so. That is, assuming everything goes OK in Game 3. For what it’s worth, Scherzer’s expecting it to be business as usual.

“We've done everything we can to make sure that I can throw a hundred pitches,” said the 33-year-old righty on Sunday afternoon. “When I get on the mound tomorrow, I'm fully anticipating being able to throw a hundred pitches.”

Of course, just because Scherzer says it, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. After all, of the 12 postseason games that have been played so far this year (24 starts), only twice has anyone lasted at least 100 pitches (Houston’s Justin Verlander, Chicago’s Kyle Hendricks). All those starts were made by hurlers with presumable healthy hammies. Whether or not Scherzer -- who last appeared in a game nine days ago and hasn’t reached 100 pitches in nearly three weeks -- can hit the century mark remains to be seen.

“I sure hope so,” Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said.

As for Scherzer, regardless of whether he throws one pitch or 100 pitches, he’s just happy to be throwing.

“Hey, we're in the playoffs. Every game is a must-win," Scherzer said. "This is going to be a crazy atmosphere here at Wrigley. I can't wait to toe the rubber.”