Just hours before the first pitch in Game 5 of the World Series in Washington, news broke that the highly anticipated duel between Astros ace Gerrit Cole and Nationals top starter Max Scherzer was not to be. The Nats’ No. 1 was scratched from the assignment because of neck spasms, putting swingman Joe Ross on the spot as the man Washington has to entrust with the start in a series that’s tied at two games apiece.
In the wake of this surprising development with series-altering implications, we asked our experts about the impact of Scherzer’s late scratch.
1. Does this mean the Nationals have no chance in Game 5?
Jeff Passan: Of course not. While losing Scherzer distinctly lessens Washington’s chances of winning, Ross is no slouch. He’ll bring a four-pitch mix headlined by a 94 mph fastball and hard slider that doesn’t move as much as his brother Tyson’s but still can be effective. In August and September, he made eight starts and posted a 2.75 ERA over 39⅓ innings. And the Nationals’ best relievers, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, are working on three days’ rest and presumably can go a couple of innings each.
Best-case scenario for the Nationals: Washington tags Cole for a couple of runs early, Ross goes five and Doolittle and Hudson work two innings apiece. Of course, all of this could be moot because Cole is starting for the Astros.
Bradford Doolittle: It doesn’t help to go from Scherzer to Ross. No chance? Well, it’s baseball, and if the Nationals get to Cole and Ross gets a lot of at ’em balls and Washington steals the win, then how does this series look? I’m sure that’s the mindset in the Nationals’ clubhouse. Scherzer’s injury won’t affect how Anthony Rendon or Juan Soto or Trea Turner prepare for the challenge of going against baseball’s hottest pitcher. However, it seems highly unlikely that Ross would go even two trips through the order and Martinez will have to carefully manage his bullpen resources knowing he has two games left to traverse. He didn’t use his high-leverage guys last night, though he probably should have, and it’s possible that may benefit him in Game 5.
David Schoenfield: Do you remember Anthony Reyes? He started and won Game 1 of the 2006 World Series for the Cardinals — against some guy named Verlander, by the way. Chad Ogea won two starts for Cleveland in 1997. John Stuper won 32 games in his career and won a game for St. Louis in the 1982 World Series. The point is … well, the truth is not too many anonymous pitchers start and win a World Series game. The odds that Joe Ross goes five innings, leaves with the lead and gets the win are slim, especially with Mr. Gerrit Cole going for the Astros.
Can the Nationals win, even if Ross doesn’t? It’s baseball. The Nats are at home. They scored five runs off Cole in Game 1. But the Astros are now clearly huge favorites. They have ripped out 24 hits in the past two games not started by Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg — but they shouldn’t be 80 percent favorites or anything like that. Heck, even the Tigers won 29 percent of their games, and they didn’t have Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon in their lineup.
2. Could this actually work out in the Nationals’ favor?
Passan: Ross could be the Nationals’ answer to Jose Urquidy. And even if he isn’t and the Nationals lose Game 5 but Strasburg wins Game 6, Scherzer could join a grab bag of starters in Game 7 alongside Anibal Sanchez and Patrick Corbin. Chris Sale closed out the World Series last year. Could it be Scherzer this year? Possibly, but if we’re being truthful, the ideal situation would’ve been that a healthy Scherzer starts Game 5 and comes back in Game 7 for an inning. If it works out in the Nationals’ favor, it will be pure happenstance and luck.
Doolittle: If Scherzer can pitch again in the series — and pitch like Max Scherzer — then it very well could. That doesn’t mean that you would game-theory it so that you concede Sunday’s game to Cole and instead line up Stephen Strasburg and Scherzer for the last two games — with Game 7 suddenly becoming a favorable matchup for Washington, with a very Mad Max going against Zack Greinke. Every win has an enormous impact on your probability of winning a seven-game series, and there is no scenario in which it is better for the Nationals to lose Game 5 than to win it. But if the Nats steal it … then Scherzer’s injury becomes a blessing in disguise. If, of course, he can go. And if you don’t win, and Scherzer recovers in time to pitch Game 7, then at least that’s about as good a backup plan as you could want.
Schoenfield: I say no. I mean, sure, you could get to Game 7 and hopefully have Scherzer ready against Zack Greinke, but you are now less likely to get to Game 7. Put it this way: If we throw Cole, Scherzer, Strasburg and Verlander into a bucket and say they are all essentially equal, and factor in that Houston has the better lineup and bullpen, the Astros would be slight favorites the next two games even with Scherzer. Now those odds go down. It’s not rocket science: Having to start Joe Ross in place of Max Scherzer is not a good thing.