A diminished Max Scherzer could change the entire complexion of Cubs-Nationals

As the Cubs break down the Washington Nationals on video, synthesize their scouting reports and run through different scenarios for the playoff roster, this data point might loom larger than anything else: Max Scherzer landing awkwardly Saturday night, walking off the mound with a damaged right leg and getting a precautionary MRI.

By Sunday morning, Scherzer was telling Washington reporters that he had a hamstring “tweak” – not a “major strain” – without guaranteeing that he would be ready to face the Cubs five days later and start Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park.

“That’s a definite, the ‘tweak,’ at it’s defined by the American Medical Association,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Game 162 at Wrigley Field. “I’m always curious about how we all try to play semantically with injuries. I have no idea what a ‘tweak’ is. A ‘tweak’ could be a sprain or a strain. I have no idea. But I love the word ‘tweak.’”

Maddon isn’t a doctor, but there are times where he has to play one on TV, trying to answer injury questions without a complete medical picture and without revealing too much information. The Cubs are already going through this with their own Cy Young Award winner.

Jake Arrieta hobbled off the field on Labor Day at PNC Park and downplayed the grabbing sensation in his right leg, hoping it might have just been cramping that knocked him out in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even after an MRI revealed a Grade 1 strain, Arrieta talked about getting back on the mound in a few days and missing only one or two starts.

Arrieta wound up going 17 days in between starts, having mixed results against the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals (six runs allowed, four earned, in eight innings combined) and getting scratched from Sunday’s start against the Cincinnati Reds.

The hope is the extra rest will help Arrieta – who came back at less than 100 percent – recover in time for a Game 3 or 4 against the Nationals. By waiting until Oct. 9-10,  he would get roughly two full weeks in between starts.

Scherzer made the point that he could still potentially start Games 2 and 5 if he needed an extra day of treatment. But a compromised Scherzer could change the entire complexion of this best-of-five series.

“Of course,” Maddon said. “We’re going to find that out. Obviously, absolutely, it can. Just like Jake. Having to push Jake back a little bit, same-same. Hammies are funny. We’ve talked about that.

“To the extent that he did it – if it was just a cramp – that’s something entirely different. You get over that. You just drink a lot of fluids – you’re fine. But if it was actually some kind of injury to it…it could be a Grade 2 tweak.”

Maddon again laughed at the “tweak” lines and knows enough about “Mad Max” after selecting him as the NL’s starting pitcher for the All-Star Game and interacting with him during this summer’s festivities in South Florida.

Even while abruptly leaving Saturday’s start against the Pirates in the fourth inning, Scherzer may have put the finishing touches on his third Cy Young Award campaign: 16-6, 2.51 ERA, 268 strikeouts in 200-plus innings.

“Mr. Scherzer is one of the best that I’ve ever seen,” Maddon said. “Regardless of whether you got your Grade-A lineup or not, when this guy’s on, it’s difficult. You have to pitch a little bit better than him, and that’s really going a long ways.”

Scherzer already beat the Cubs once this season – a 6-1 win on June 27 at Nationals Park – at a time when Arrieta (4.67 ERA) hadn’t found his second-half stride yet and injuries to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward limited the lineup possibilities. An offense that would score 800-plus runs again wasn’t clicking on all cylinders, and the Cubs will draw from their unique playoff experiences last October into early November.   

“You just got to look for that edge in the game,” Maddon said. “Whatever you want to call it or describe it is the fact that you have the guys that are supposed to be out there, out there vs. him. And you’re playing in this situation that you’re somewhat used to and you’re confident. Those are the things that will work in our favor.

“But when this guy’s on, I don’t care who you’re throwing up there to the plate, this guy’s that good. (So) whenever you have a chance to score a run with an out, score a run with an out. Anything that occurs that permits you to take a little – and move the needle a little bit – you got to do it because he is that good.”