- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2016

LOS ANGELES | A chance for a pivot comes in Game 5. The Washington Nationals can move beyond just being a potent regular-season organization. A group that has its playoff failures of the last five seasons countered by win totals from 162-game grinds and reminders of how much worse it was before that.

Thursday, with a win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the deciding game of the National League Division Series, Washington can do away with that caveat-filled rap. It can leave the first round for the first time since baseball was rebooted in the District in 2005, kicking away the reputation for nice seasons and October failures veterans on the team know tug at their legacies.

“I would like to do that for me and everyone in this room, too,” Ryan Zimmerman said after Game 1. “I think everyone’s goal at the beginning of spring training is to make it into the playoffs. From there, obviously, everyone wants to win the ultimate prize, but it’s hard to do.”

The postseason is starting to gnaw at Max Scherzer’s reputation, too. The end of the year is unforgiving to season-long bodies of work, which the team has learned, and Scherzer is increasingly aware of. He will be on the mound for Game 5, which he unabashedly is viewing with the requisite heft.

“I’ve said that a handful of times throughout my career,” Scherzer said. “How you handle that, going out there and using the emotion of that scenario, that everything’s on the line, and look – I’m not gonna shy away from it: This is the biggest start of my career.”

Searching for a comparable time, Scherzer thought back to Game 6 of the 2013 American League Championship Series, when he was with the Detroit Tigers and facing the Boston Red Sox. He was hit with three earned runs in 61/3 innings. The Tigers lost and were eliminated. His career postseason ERA is now 3.93. His last two playoff starts have uh-oh numbers in the ERA slots: 6.14 in 2014 and 6.00 in Game 1 of this NLDS. The Dodgers hit two home runs off Scherzer in the first game of the series, again goading his eternal nemesis. Otherwise, he allowed three hits, walked none and struck out five in six innings.

“I feel like I made some mistakes, but I’m sure they felt like they missed some pitches.” Scherzer said. “That’s the way it goes.”

Scherzer’s Game 1 start was the longest outing by a Nationals starter in the series. To replicate or improve it, Scherzer said execution will supersede strategy concerns. Much like pitching against a division rival multiple times during the season, facing the same team twice in the playoffs leaves little guesswork. Scherzer’s arsenal is understood by the Dodgers. The swing planes and habits of Los Angeles hitters are entrenched in Scherzer’s head.

“This is where they separate the men from the boys,” Scherzer said.

Los Angeles remains mum about its starter. Veteran left-hander Rich Hill is an option. Wunderkind Julio Urias, also left-handed, is another choice. To the great pleasure of Nationals manager Dusty Baker, it will not be Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.

“I know Kershaw isn’t pitching, thank God,” Baker said.

Urias is a 20-year-old prospect that has made many overzealous onlookers in Los Angeles think back to Fernando Valenzuela. The trouble with that comparison is that Urias had to work his way to a 3.39 ERA after serious missteps when first called to the major leagues May 27 for his debut. The Dodgers are also employing the modern protective technique in order to minimize their youngster’s burden during his initial seasons. Valenzuela threw 192 innings his first full major league season. His ERA was 2.48. He won the Cy Young award. Urias has thrown 77 innings in the majors.

The Nationals scored four runs against Hill in 4 innings in Game 2, three delivered by Jose Lobaton’s against-the-grain home run. Either pitcher would be a gamble for Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.

“Doesn’t matter who they are going to throw,” Bryce Harper said. “Just try to stay with our approach, stay within ourselves and just have a lot of fun. Hopefully, we’re slammed and jam-packed and everybody’s wearing that red.”

Scherzer is uninfluenced by the absence of Kershaw.

“Doesn’t matter,” Scherzer said. “You’re going to get their absolute best. Their best effort from all season. Just like we’re going to give our best effort that we’ve given all season. Man, what can you ask for? This is great.”

That will be true if they win. Scherzer wore the angst of a postseason loss on his face following Game 1. His postgame answers, understandably, were short. It just resonates more when a boisterous man chooses to swallow his words.

He is being paid $210 million by the Nationals. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo was in charge of scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks when they drafted Scherzer in 2006. A “bulldog” Rizzo has called him. He thought it then. He thinks it now. Thursday night, when there can be this memory wipe of past failures, much of the result will fall to Scherzer. He wouldn’t have it another way.


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