CHICAGO -- Now that he's been given extra days to get healthy, Max Scherzer will attempt to make the most of his opportunity to strengthen the Nationals' bid to end this season with a World Series title.
All eyes will be on Scherzer when he takes the Wrigley Field mound today to oppose Jose Quintana and the Cubs in Game 3 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile. The series is tied one game apiece after the Nationals rallied for a 6-3 win Saturday in Game 2 at Nationals Park.
"You know, momentum can swing in a heartbeat, in a pitch, in a series," Scherzer said. "That's why every game matters so much, and that's why every game is like a must-win. I mean, that's playoff baseball. That's baseball at its best. It doesn't matter how you look or how long. Everything can change in one pitch, one moment. I mean, that's my experience, and that's what makes this game great."
The Nationals entered Saturday's five-run eighth inning staring at the possibility of heading to Wrigley Field on the brink of elimination. They left the frame understandably feeling good about the opportunity to send Scherzer to the mound during the swing game of this best-of-five series against the defending World Series champions.
Scherzer arguably stands as baseball's top right-handed pitcher, but there will be some concern as he pitches for the first time since sustaining a right hamstring strain on Sept. 30 against the Pirates. The two-time Cy Young Award winner has completed recent bullpen sessions in pain-free fashion, but he'll have to prove how much strength and endurance he has regained.
"I think I'm very confident as soon as I toe the rubber that, hey, I'm going to be good on pitch one," Scherzer said. "It's, 'How long can I go without re-injuring this?' We've done everything we can to make sure that I can throw a hundred pitches and not have this happen. When I get on the mound tomorrow, I'm fully anticipating being able to throw a hundred pitches."
In taking a couple extra days to recover, Scherzer denied himself the chance to make two starts in the series against the Cubs. But he positioned himself to provide an optimal effort in Game 3 and possibly be available out of the bullpen in Game 5 (if necessary).
"We'll see, you know, how deep he can go," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "That's the question on anybody that's kind of semi-injured is, you know, when they fatigue, are they strong enough to battle through whatever is bothering them?"
Scherzer produced a career-best 2.51 ERA over 31 starts and compiled an NL-best 268 strikeouts over 200 2/3 innings, as he spent this season making a strong bid to win a second straight NL Cy Young Award.
According to Statcast™, Scherzer produced a swinging strike with 16.75 percent of the pitches he threw this season and a 32.75-percent swing-and-miss rate when accounting only for the pitches that drew a swing. The first percentage ranked first among all Major League pitchers who threw at least 2,000 pitches this year and the latter ranked third (trailing only the D-backs' Robbie Ray and Indians' Corey Kluber) among pitchers who induced at least 1,000 swings.
This could prove to be a favorable matchup for Scherzer, as the Cubs' offense produced the NL's sixth-highest strikeout total (1,401) and the Majors' eighth-highest swing-and-miss rate (12.16 percent).
Accounting for the fact Scherzer limited right-handed hitters to a .425 OPS and a .692 OPS to left-handed hitters, Cubs manager Joe Maddon will likely start Kyle Schwarber in left field.
"They are going to have a game plan against me and I'm going to have a game plan against them," Scherzer said. "It just comes down to execution. If I can execute pitches and keep the ball out of the middle of the plate, I know I can have success. But if I make mistakes, I know they can take me deep. That's the game."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.