WASHINGTON — Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer was scheduled to engage in a highly anticipated World Series pitching matchup against Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole on Sunday night, but he had to be scratched from his Game 5 assignment with back and neck soreness.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez made the announcement about 3½ hours before game time. Right-hander Joe Ross, who pitched two innings of relief in Game 3 on Friday night, was plugged in as the emergency starter.
The injury represented another huge setback for the Nationals, who left Houston on Wednesday night with a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Only three teams have ever lost the Fall Classic after being in that position, but the Astros rebounded to win the first two games at Nationals Park. Sunday night’s game ended too late to be included in this edition.
Martinez said Scherzer, who missed much of July and most of August with what was described at the time as a mid-back strain, suffered spasms near his neck over the past couple of days and the soreness had worsened when he woke up Sunday.
“And if you all know Max, obviously he pitched with a broken nose, he’s been hurt before, he’s gotten through things,” Martinez said. “When he comes in and says he’s hurt this bad, he’s hurt.”
Scherzer spoke to reporters late Sunday afternoon and said that he is “as disappointed as I could possibly be.” He said that he was “completely locked up” when he woke up Sunday and received an anti-inflammatory injection that will require at least 48 hours to relieve the nerve irritation that caused the spasms.
“I’ve pitched through so much crap in my career that would be easy to pitch through at this point," Scherzer said. “This is literally impossible to do anything with ... This is just a little thing that turned into a big thing that turned into a giant thing.”
Ross pitched in 27 games as a starter and in relief during the regular season, posting a 4-4 overall record with a 5.48 ERA. He was 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA in nine starts.
Martinez didn’t characterize it as a bullpen game, but the situation was somewhat similar to the predicament the Astros faced in Game 4 when they sent rookie Jose Urquidy to the mound and got a strong five-inning performance that helped them even the series at two games apiece.
It didn’t go quite that well for Ross, who allowed a two-run home run to rookie outfielder Yordan Alvarez in the second inning and served up a two-out, two-run shot to shortstop Carlos Correa in the fourth, but he certainly didn’t embarrass himself. He got through five innings and gave up just five hits to the team that had the best batting average, OPS and slugging percentage in the major leagues during the regular season.
The starter switch didn’t alter the Nationals’ plans for Game 6, in which Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to pitch against Astros’ 21-game-winner Justin Verlander on Tuesday night in Houston. Martinez said that Scherzer could be available to pitch in relief in that game or start a possible Game 7 if the soreness clears up quickly.
"We’re going to keep him on the roster,'' Martinez said. “If this gets better in the next 24 to 48 hours, being that we have a day off tomorrow, hopefully he’ll be available to pitch one of those two games.”
Strasburg said Sunday that there was never any discussion of him moving up on short rest to take Scherzer’s place.
“No, I don’t think it really was ever an idea,” he said. “I threw a bullpen yesterday. Obviously found out [about Scherzer] a little while ago. But I’m kind of at that point where I’m preparing for Game 6.”
The start on Tuesday night will be the biggest game that Strasburg has ever pitched and it now figures to be the marquee matchup of the Series, but he said his focus will not be on the Cy Young Award winner who will take the mound for the Astros.
“I really don’t look at the opposing pitcher,” Strasburg said. “Again, it’s who I’m facing, the hitters that I’m facing. That’s my job ... Pitching at this point in the season, it’s a tremendous honor, and I’m going to go out there and compete and give it everything I have.”