WASHINGTON (AP) — Stephen Strasburg’s 2012 shutdown is a distant memory by now.
This sort of setting and stakes — Game 5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the outcome of the NL Division Series on the line — is exactly why the Washington Nationals protected the pitcher they drafted No. 1 overall all those years ago.
Strasburg will get the ball for visiting wild card Washington, and Walker Buehler will be on the mound for league-best LA on Wednesday night in the finale of the best-of-five series.
“Better to be at home than on the road in Game 5,” Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger said.
The Dodgers are trying to reach the NL Championship Series for the fourth consecutive year, while the Nationals have never won a playoff series since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005.
“We’ve got their big horse against one of our horses,” Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki said.
Each starter already had a fantastic outing to earn a win in the series: Buehler gave up just one hit while tossing six scoreless innings in Game 1; Strasburg struck out 10 and allowed one run in six innings in Game 2.
That lowered Strasburg’s postseason ERA to 0.64, the lowest for anyone with at least four career starts.
“It’s something that you train for, you dream about as a kid,” he said, “and you want to have those opportunities to just see how your stuff stacks up.”
It’s the sort of production Washington was envisioning when general manager Mike Rizzo held the righty out of the playoffs seven seasons ago, a year after Strasburg had Tommy John surgery.
“Try not to look in the past. Try not to look in the future. Really just try and be in the moment,” Strasburg said when asked about 2012 on Monday night, after Washington beat Los Angeles 6-1 in Game 4 to force a Game 5. “Once you start thinking about how things could have been or what things might happen, it takes your focus away from what your job is.”
Buehler will be making his sixth postseason start; he is 1-1 with a 3.03 ERA. Last year, he appeared in one game in the NLDS, two in the NLCS and one in the World Series, where the Dodgers lost to the Boston Red Sox.
“Something I’m familiar with,” he said of the pressure of the playoffs, “and getting to do it at home certainly helps.”
As important as Strasburg and Buehler are sure to be, the bullpens could hold the key.
Washington’s relievers had the worst ERA in the NL in 2019, but manager Dave Martinez has relied heavily on starters to come out of the ‘pen during the playoffs, with mixed results, including giving away Game 3 of the NLDS during LA’s seven-run sixth.
It was the Dodgers’ turn to struggle in Game 4, when the Nationals produced a four-run inning against relievers.
One thing to keep an eye out for Wednesday: The Dodgers will have three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw available to enter in relief.
Three years ago, when LA eliminated Washington in the NLDS, Kershaw came out of the bullpen in Game 5 to earn the first save of his career.
Don’t expect to see that sort of thing from the Nationals’ three-Cy guy, Max Scherzer.
He threw 109 pitches over seven innings in Game 4, then said he didn’t think he’d be able to pitch again Wednesday, because, as Scherzer put it, “My arm is hanging right now.”
That 2016 exit against the Dodgers is part of a bleak playoff history for the Nationals: They are 0-4 in the NLDS over the past eight years, including 0-3 in Game 5s.
“Maybe,” lefty reliever Sean Doolittle said, “we can flip that script.”
One difference this time: Those Game 5s were all in Washington.
Another key difference: Strasburg is starting in a Game 5 for the first time.
“He’s been a workhorse the whole season, so just the fact that he’s carried it over to the playoffs has been amazing,” said Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, who led the majors with 126 RBIs this season and drove in three in Game 4. “So looking forward to playing behind him.”
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