New York Post

Nats open Series push with ailing superstars


WASHINGTON — The postseason is why baseball teams do what they do. And the Nationals are built for the postseason.

But at the most important time of year, the NL East champs have concerns about arguably their best pitcher, Max Scherzer, and best hitter, Bryce Harper. It’s enough to drive a manager nuts.

“I was always taught: You identify the problem. Doesn’t do any good to kick a puppy and I tried putting my hand through the wall, and it didn’t do nothing but hurt me,” Washington manager Dusty Baker said Thursday on the eve of opening the NLDS against the Cubs at Nationals Park.

“I’m a man of solutions. You identify the problem and then you try to find a solution.”

The solution to Scherzer and his ailing hamstring is Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 2.52 ERA), who faces Chicago’s Kyle Hendricks (7-5, 3.03 ERA) in Friday’s Game 1. The Nationals hoped Scherzer would test the hamstring Wednesday or Thursday throwing off a mound. Instead, he played catch in the outfield. Gio Gonzalez is the probable Game 2 starter, with Scherzer in Game 3.

“We realize if [Scherzer] pitched Game 2, he could probably pitch Game 5 if necessary,” Baker said. “We realize that, but is that worth taking a chance?”

Strasburg, who missed last year’s postseason with an elbow ailment, compiled a superb 0.86 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings over his past 10 starts. The Nationals are favored, but the Cubs, relishing underdog status, see one obvious benefit of Scherzer’s delayed start.

“If he’s not going to be able to go in Game 2, he’s not going to be able to probably pitch in Game 5,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “So you’ve got one of the best pitchers of our generation not going two games.”

But it’s not like he’s being replaced by a member of Detroit’s bullpen.

“Stras has probably thrown the ball better than anybody the second half,” Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said.

Then there is the matter of Harper, who returned for five games (3-of-18, seven strikeouts) after missing 41 with a hyperexten­sion and bruise of the left knee.

“I feel fine,” he said. “Just healthy.”

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