CHICAGO -- They lingered on the mound for longer than usual, with Max Scherzer attempting to talk his way into staying in, even after manager Dusty Baker had emerged from the dugout. Scherzer had just given up his first hit of the day, a one-out double from Ben Zobrist in the seventh, and Baker faced a crucial decision in a one-run game.
However, with an eye on the next hitter and considering Scherzer had thrown 98 pitches coming off an injured hamstring, Baker decided to pull his ace from the game. The move did not pay off as the Cubs scored in the seventh and eighth innings to steal a 2-1 victory in Game 3 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile.
Washington trails the NLDS two games to one, but Scherzer did all he could. He carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning and flummoxed the Cubs for seven strikeouts. He did not blink until that Zobrist double, which put the tying run on base with Kyle Schwarber due up next. So, Baker chose to go with left-hander Sammy Solis, which he knew would prompt pinch-hitter Albert Almora Jr., who tied the game with a single.
"It was very difficult, but we thought Max had had enough," Baker said. "Especially coming off the injury, and you know, Schwarber is a dangerous man. I probably couldn't live with myself if Schwarber had hit one out of the park on you, which he's dangerous to do that."
Scherzer added: "When they made that decision, I wasn't going to override anybody. These are pressure-packed situations. They've done their homework and they've done their job to come up with the best scenario in that situation. Dusty all year has done that situation for us."
Scherzer was making this start after having his 2017 postseason debut pushed back to Game 3 as he nursed a right hamstring injury for the past week. In between innings, he applied heat to his hamstring and made sure to keep moving around to stay loose. Scherzer also made an adjustment to his mechanics to help alleviate the pressure on his hamstring. He got his right foot up quicker during his windup, a change he made a few days ago while playing catch.
"I could feel that if I got that foot up higher quicker that it took the stress off the hamstring," he said. "And honestly, it allowed me to get to my front side better and keep my glove tight better. ... It allowed me to be mechanically sound and just execute good pitches."
Scherzer's performance was effective, even if it was a different from his usual dominant form. He induced just 11 swinging strikes, his lowest total this season in a game where he threw at least 75 pitches. Of the 47 four-seam fastballs he threw, the only swinging strike he generated came on the strikeout to Willson Contreras. The next resulted in Zobrist's double.
The Nationals' offense did not give them much room for error. Their only run came on an unearned run in the sixth after Schwarber dropped a fly ball in left field from Daniel Murphy, then kicked it to allow Murphy to reach third base. Ryan Zimmerman doubled off the wall to give Washington a 1-0 lead. Otherwise, the Nationals managed just three hits, remaining dormant in this series aside from their five-run outburst in the eighth inning of Game 2.
Washington has received stellar pitching performances from both its aces, with Stephen Strasburg's performance in Game 1 and Scherzer on Monday, and hasn't gotten a win either time. And now the Nationals are on the brink of elimination, needing a victory today in Chicago to save their season. If they can force a Game 5 and push the series back to Washington, Scherzer said he will be available to pitch in relief. But first, they must win today.
"Win the game," Scherzer said about the Nats' approach in Game 4. "What else do you want us to do? We're going to win the game."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.