- Pulling Max Scherzer in the seventh inning was the latest decision to backfire on Nationals manager Dusty Baker, whose postseason luck is as bad as anybody's.
It’s been 20 years since Dusty Baker first took a team to the playoffs, when his 1997 Giants won the NL West but were swept by the Florida Marlins in the Division Series. In the two decades since, he has steered eight other teams into October. He has managed hundreds of different players, superstars and journeymen both, but no matter the composition of his roster, every postseason ends the same way: with Baker on the losing side, forced to watch another team celebrate as it moves on or takes home a title.
Those nine Octobers have featured some singularly brutal moments for Baker. He has been within six outs of winning a World Series only to watch the Giants fall apart, and he has seen five of his teams take a series lead only to blow it—four of them when just one more win would have meant advancing to the next round or winning it all. His starters have come up short, his bullpen has collapsed, his defense has made crucial errors, and his fans have interfered (albeit unintentionally). There is no postseason indignity he has not suffered.
At the same time, for some of those most heartwrenching losses, the blame begins and ends with Baker. His most infamous defeats—Game 6 of the 2002 World Series and Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS—both featured Baker either too quick (the former) or too slow (the latter) to make a move with his starter. Russ Ortiz and Mark Prior never were on the same team, but they’ll forever be linked thanks to Baker’s hook or lack thereof.
To that trio, you can add Max Scherzer in NLDS Game 3. You, Baker, Nationals fans and everyone else can debate until the sun winks out of existence as to whether he was wrong to pull his ace with one out in the seventh inning against the Cubs. Scherzer was dominating, holding the Cubs hitless through six; he departed with only one hit on his line. But that ball, a double by Ben Zobrist, was well struck, and a big lefty slugger was up in Kyle Schwarber with a runner in scoring position, and the Nationals had a narrow one-run lead.
The issue was that Scherzer had thrown only 98 pitches and hadn’t hurled a ball in anger in over a week; he had plenty left in the tank for Schwarber and anyone beyond him, and who else would you want pitching in a one-run game? But the reason he hadn’t pitched in so long was because of a hamstring cramp that cost him the starts in Games 1 and 2; why push him with a rested bullpen? But that bullpen didn’t have a dominant option ready to go.
Again, you can do this all day. The main point is that Baker’s choice was not an easy decision—it wasn’t an obvious first or second guess like Ortiz or Prior. “It was very difficult,” Baker said after the game. “We thought Max had had enough, 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.”
So Baker took Scherzer out after a short consultation on the mound—the righthander said it was a “50/50” call—and brought in lefty Sammy Solis. Joe Maddon countered with pinch-hitter Albert Almora, a righty. Solis left a changeup over the plate that got whacked into left to score Zobrist and tie the game; an inning later, the Cubs finished it, putting the Nationals in a 2–1 series hole. Figuring he would be damned if he didn’t, Baker was damned because he did.
“If he made the pitch,” Baker said of Solis, “we wouldn’t be talking about this. But sometimes, you can’t throw the ball where you want to throw it.”
It’s easy to blame this loss on Baker, the same way he was faulted for the Giants blowing it in 2002, the Cubs disintegrating in ’03, the Reds stumbling several times over and the Nationals coming up short last year, even if nothing links those years other than the man chewing on a toothpick in the dugout. But it’s also easy to imagine Scherzer hanging a pitch to Schwarber and hanging his head as Wrigley Field explodes, and to script out all the post-game takes chiding Baker for being too slow once again. Literally and figuratively, Dusty Baker can’t win.
If there’s one thing you can ding Baker for, it’s going to Solis in his most crucial moment. The last two years of the postseason have upended the bullpen hierarchy, and this year’s playoffs are hard at work erasing all boundaries between starters and relievers, but Baker remains committed to an older script.
The Nationals’ best reliever is Sean Doolittle, but he was not ready in the seventh because he is the closer and had to be held back for the save situation that never came. Solis has been awful when called upon this year, with a 5.88 ERA in limited duty, and he was a lock to face a right-handed hitter once announced, but still Baker went with him. More than the decision to pull Scherzer, that’s the move that could and should haunt him. (You can argue the same for going with lefty Oliver Perez instead of Doolittle in the eighth against Anthony Rizzo on the game-winning hit.)
“We thought we made the right decision,” Baker said when it was all said and done, and that’s probably how he felt in 2002 and ’03 and a hundred other times in the postseason when he had to pick a side in what seemed like an impossible choice. Some of them worked; the more high-profile ones didn’t. The question now for Baker isn’t whether he did the right thing, but what he’ll do next as his team once again faces the prospect of going home without a championship. The scenarios and decisions change; sadly for Baker, the results never have.