HOUSTON – He could have been Mad Max on a night his best was missing. Instead, he fenced and fought, shuffled and juggled.
And so did the Washington Nationals bullpen.
As the Houston Astros kept clawing within one big hit of a comeback, Scherzer and the Nationals just held on.
Scherzer got through five innings of Max-imum effort for a 5-4 victory in Tuesday night’s opener, becoming the first pitcher to win a World Series game for a Washington team since Earl Whitehill against the New York Giants in 1933.
Unable to overwhelm, Scherzer threw a bit of the ol’ razzle dazzle that included 112 pitches, nine full counts and six stranded runners.
“They grinded me apart. Pitch count was out of control, and that’s a credit to what they were able to do and constantly put pressure on me,” said Scherzer, who threw just 42 pitches out of his windup. “I was just not going to give in. I had to continue to bounce sliders and changeups in the dirt because I just did not want to give up another run.”
Nationals manager Dave Martinez followed the once-unconventional and now by-the-postseason-book method of tapping starters for big-moment relief, bringing in Patrick Corbin for the sixth, the first of four heartburn-inducing relievers.
A three-time Cy Young Award winner and seven-time All-Star, Scherzer is seeking his first Series ring at age 35. His only previous time on baseball’s biggest stage was a no-decision in Game 4 for Detroit as San Francisco completed a four-game sweep in 2012.
He fell behind quickly against the Astros, walking George Springer, allowing a first-pitch single to Jose Altuve and giving up a two-out, two-run double to Yuli Gurriel, a flat fastball that hit high off the left field wall.
Scherzer stranded one in the second by throwing a changeup past Springer for a called third strike, runners at the corners in the third by getting Carlos Correa to swing over a slider and two on in the fourth by getting Altuve on a soft groundout to first. Only in the fifth, when Corbin already was warming up, did Scherzer pitch a 1-2-3 inning.
“I didn’t lose the ballgame,” Scherzer said, crediting catcher Kurt Suzuki for his pitch selection. “If I had to throw it in the dirt, I had to, just to keep from making a mistake in the middle of the zone.”
Corbin, who may start Game 4 on Saturday, worked around a single in the sixth.
“At this point, you might as well pitch in games instead of bullpens,” he said.
Tanner Rainey was next and gave up a home run to Springer leading off the seventh, an inning that ended when Daniel Hudson struck out Yordan Alvarez on three pitches to leave the bases loaded.
“That was intense, man,” said Hudson, a veteran of two Tommy John operations who was jobless in the final week of March, then signed with Toronto and was dealt to Washington on July 31. “It’s been a crazy ride, man, for sure. It’s been a wild six months but I’m just so happy to be in this situation with these guys.”
Springer hit a run-scoring double off Hudson on a hanging slider in the eighth, a ball that just missed becoming a tying, two-run homer and glanced off the glove of a leaping Adam Eaton at the right field wall. Springer might have gotten to third had he not taken a few hops out of the batter’s box, thinking had homered again, and he might have been able to tag up and score on Altuve’s fly to right. Kyle Tucker initially tagged up at second on the long drive, which also might have prevented Springer from having a chance to reach third.
Instead, he was left at second and became the Astros’ 11th stranded runner when Michael Brantley sliced an opposite-field liner to left off Sean Doolittle, leaving Houston 3 for 12 with runners in scoring position.
When Doolittle pitched a perfect ninth that ended with Correa’s soft flyout to center, it was just the second 1-2-3 inning for Washington, which could exhale for the first time all game. Doolittle and the Nationals’ relievers have been maligned for their 5.68 regular-season ERA, 29th among the 30 clubs.
“We are well aware of how we kind of stumbled as a group over the course of the season and what the number said,” Doolittle explained, “but we wanted to say, hey, when this is all said and done, let’s have the story be that we came back and we were there for the team, helping the team win down the stretch and into the playoffs and we’ve been able to find ways to get it done.”
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