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Nationals take 2-0 lead over Cardinals in National League Championship Series with 3-1 victory

Washington Nationals Max Scherzer pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game 2 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

HOUSTON — The champagne had yet to dry and probably wouldn’t for several hours when Washington ace Max Scherzer, one of the most decorated starting pitchers of his generation and now a World Series champion, considered the age-old axiom that he and the Nationals rotation had proven, even in this new-age ballgame.

If good pitching nullifies good hitting, can a team ever have enough pitching?

Scherzer paused, allowing the absurdity of the question to hang in the air just long enough for him to grin wryly and spike it.

“I think the answer is no. No, there’s never enough pitching,” the Parkway Central grad said. “Hopefully people will start spending money on pitching. Wouldn’t that be great?”

It’s certainly a way for teams to be great.

At the end of a 2019 season that saw a record amount of home runs and runs scored throughout baseball, the two teams that spent millions and gave up prospects to stock their rotations with stellar, five-star starters played each other for the championship. Whoever won, starting pitching ruled.

In a Game 7 for the ages (and aged) Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park, Scherzer, once the highest-paid pitcher in the game, pitched opposite Houston’s Zack Greinke, who has the highest average salary for a pitcher. Never before had two Cy Young Award winners faced each other in Game 7, and they did not disappoint — with Scherzer, back from injury, slogging his way through five sturdy innings and Greinke taking a one-hitter into the seventh inning.

The Nationals rallied to win 6-2, with the decisive homer coming off Houston’s first reliever into the game. To handle the innings after Scherzer, Washington turned to, yes, a starter. Lefty Patrick Corbin pitched three scoreless innings on the way to clinching the franchise’s first World Series title.

Call it an immediate return on an aggressive investment. At a time when a majority of teams shy from the volatility of aging pitchers, Washington didn’t. The Nationals signed Corbin, 30, to a $140 million deal this season, and the four starters they used in the World Series earned $93 million this year.

Pitching sure is pricey.

No wonder. Pitching pays off.

“We believe so. I believe so,” said Mike Rizzo, Washington’s general manager. “I think starting pitching is the key. It’s more of a philosophical thing that we believe that starting pitchers are important to our roster construction. That was our mindset going into free agency. I was brought up on the idea that if you have starting pitching, anything is possible. And if you don’t have it, then nothing is possible.”

The age of bullpening and hyper-analytics has eroded the influence of starters and the expectations of starters, especially in recent Octobers. In 2011, the Cardinals had more innings from relievers than starters in the National League Championship Series — and that hasn’t been all that rare since.

This postseason course-corrected. In the 15 previous postseasons, only one team had 100 innings in October from its starters — the 2013 Cardinals. This October, both Houston (103 2/3) and Washington (102 1/3) got 100 innings from the rotation.

The two pennant-winners combined for 22 wins this postseason, and for one of them their starters had 17 of those wins, including World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg’s 5-0 October.

“I think when you have the type of pitchers, not just have starting pitchers — we can all field starting pitchers — we’re fielding elite ones, and so are they,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. “That lends itself to sort of an older school brand of baseball, where you hand the ball to a star, to an ace, to someone who you expect to go deep into the game. Then you let them pitch.”

The World Series’ showcase of starters offers a prelude to a sweepstakes of starters. The free-agent season, which began a minute or so after the World Series ended, is rich with starting pitching.

Houston’s Gerrit Cole, a favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award, left Minute Maid Park late Wednesday night wearing a Boras Corp. baseball cap. He’ll be the most coveted pitcher available in a market that will include former Cy Young winners Dallas Keuchel and Rick Porcello, former postseason MVPs Madison Bumgarner and Michael Wacha, and handfuls of other starters such as Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi.

Strasburg could opt out of his contract and try free agency for the first time in his career.

There’s a pitcher at almost every price point.

But Washington showed the value of going big.

When it became clear that outfielder Bryce Harper was headed elsewhere as a free agent this past winter, Rizzo and the Nationals pivoted toward a familiar approach: pitching. Specifically, Corbin. Washington’s interest in the free agent with one of the game’s best sliders came from a wish to add a lefty between Scherzer and Strasburg and gather a classic trio — the three-headed monster of starters that used to be a staple of October success.

“We liked the big three, that big three idea,” Rizzo said on the field before Game 7. “Patrick figured in nicely with us because he was the lefthander between those two righthanders.

“He gave us a different look, and it gave us a big three, a stable big three we felt could compete with anybody, and then we went out and put Anibal Sanchez in there and felt really good about our four starters.”

Sanchez signed for a two-year, $19 million deal this past winter — and was exactly the kind of pitcher every contender could use at that cost. He shut out the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS to speed Washington to the NL pennant and into a clash of rotations.

The World Series featured six of the pitchers with a top-16 ERA in the regular season, and that group was split evenly into Big Threes. Cole, Justin Verlander, and Greinke had three of the top nine ERAs in baseball for Houston, and Scherzer ranked eighth in the majors for Washington, with Corbin and Strasburg all better than 3.35.

Only one other team in baseball had three pitchers rank in the top 20 for ERA — the Los Angeles Dodgers. But three others were right there on the cusp and could complete their big three with bounce-back or breakthrough years by returning starters — or by going shopping.

The three teams with two were all in the National League: Cincinnati, with newcomer Sonny Gray; the New York Mets, with the midseason addition of Marcus Stroman; and the Cardinals, with their young stars Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson.

The Cardinals have not ruled out adding a starter via free agency, hunting for a lefty to do what Rizzo did with Corbin, and revisiting past interest in Wheeler, Keuchel or Odorizzi.

They could be part of a market thaw.

In recent years, there has been a hesitance by many teams to commit long-term and high-dollar to pitchers. The Cardinals did not engage in Scherzer’s free agency because they believed the history of such deals was unfavorable.

Scherzer relished that this World Series — and the past season — offers a counterpoint. One of the oldest teams in the game, Washington embraced the performance of mature players by calling them “Los Viejos” — the old ones — and Scherzer, in the celebratory clubhouse, pointed out how “we don’t fold under pressure.” Maybe, he suggested, that’s worth paying for. It was for Washington.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Rizzo said.

Five of the eight starters in the World Series have signed contracts worth more than $140 million, and four signed for at least $175 million. Those five pitchers have combined for 29 All-Star appearances and five Cy Young awards.

Of that group, Strasburg is the youngest at 31 and Verlander, Greinke and Scherzer are all at least 35. They’re elite, and that may not push the hands of the clock for other pitchers overlooked in the market. But only Verlander, who starts a two-year, $66 million extension in Houston next spring, was unsteady in October.

Cole, who is about to reset the record for highest-paid pitcher, relished the show around him, saying how it was a “pleasure” to share a field with other starters “who emulate the role of longevity, durability, creativeness, tenacity, grit.”

“It’s kind of like the old dogs showing back up in the bright lights,” he said.

Old tricks are new again.

At a price.

“To win in October, I think you need a lot of things,” Hinch said. “You do need starting pitching. You do need a good bullpen. You need an unknown star to step up and start hitting some home runs or making defensive plays. You need a real team. And you can’t do that just one way, otherwise we would just blueprint, copy and paste, and do it the next postseason. Managing your club is based on managing your personnel.

“In this particular instance, Davey (Martinez) and I have to manage elite starting pitching, and we get to talk about old-school ways of getting out of their way and just letting them pitch,” Hinch concluded. “It may be different next year if we don’t have these guys.”

Especially when someone else does.