Right-handed swingman Joe Ross will start in Scherzer’s place against Houston Astros Cy Young Award candidate Gerrit Cole, preempting a highly anticipated rematch of the Game 1 showdown between two of the best pitchers in baseball.
“Max was quiet,” Martinez said. “I’ve never seen him that quiet before.”
Scherzer will remain on the roster. He spoke to reporters not long after Martinez did and was in visible pain when he entered the news conference room. The 35-year-old rotated his entire upper body to look at reporters when they asked questions. His wife had to help him dress Sunday morning.
“From the moment I wake up, I couldn’t get out of bed,” Scherzer said. “I had to fall out of bed and basically pick myself up with my left arm. I knew at that point I was in a really bad spot.
“I’m as disappointed as I possibly can be to not be able to pitch tonight,” he added. “It’s Game 5 of the World Series. I’ve pitched through so much crap in my career that would be easy to pitch through at this point. It’s literally impossible to do anything with.”
The pain started a few days ago, but Scherzer didn’t think anything of it because he has had “little neck spasms” before and knew how to get through them. But he came to Nationals Park and got treatment Friday, and “it didn’t feel quite right.” Hitting usually loosens up Scherzer, but when he took batting practice that day, it didn’t.
Scherzer arrived at the park Saturday with a plan to heal. He received treatment. He spoke with doctors. He eased through the day and found a way to play catch. Then he woke up Sunday morning and “was completely locked up.” Doctors told him it wasn’t just the muscle spasms but that a nerve in his neck “is all jammed up.”
“Thankfully, the doctors said as long as I have no numbness coming down my arms or anything, they don’t think I can do any serious long-term damage here,” Scherzer said. “It’s just pinching up the nerve.”
The pain is not related to the back injuries that landed him on the injured list twice this summer, Scherzer said. He returned to the active roster in late August and admitted to pitching at less than 100 percent, but just before the playoffs the right-hander asserted he felt back to normal again.
“The back issues are fine,” Scherzer said Saturday before Game 4. “All those back issues I have to really address in the offseason."
General Manager Mike Rizzo learned of the ailment via text message Sunday morning. He is hopeful Scherzer can recover in time to start a potential Game 7 in Houston. Doctors told Scherzer it could be possible, and they gave him a cortisone shot Sunday morning that would take at least 48 hours to become effective. The shot should alleviate the pain and could allow him to pitch the potential clincher Wednesday.
“This is a little thing that turned into a big thing that turned into a giant thing,” Scherzer said.
This news is especially surprising because of Scherzer’s reputation as a bulldog who plays through pain. Earlier this season, the right-hander broke his nose on a bunt attempt during batting practice and threw seven scoreless innings the next night anyway. In July, back trouble landed Scherzer on the injured list and, during the recovery process, Martinez mentioned multiple times the challenge of managing Scherzer’s effort. The ace wanted to rush back and help the team and, despite being less than 100 percent, he pushed, hurt himself further and landed back on the IL. Scherzer missing a start of this magnitude signaled to teammates and opponents the immensity of the pain.
“For Max to miss a game, especially a significant game like this, he’s got to be really hurting,” Martinez said. “Hopefully we’ll see signs of him starting to get better, and then we’ll go from there.”
Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander, who played with Scherzer in Detroit, echoed that sentiment: “It’s got to be pretty bad,” he said.
Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said he learned of Scherzer’s scratch when third baseman Alex Bregman walked into his office, showed him an alert on his phone and asked whether it was true. Martinez said he dispatched bench coach Chip Hale to tell the Astros a half-hour before he announced the decision.
Hale and Houston bench coach Joe Espada had been in touch all afternoon regarding the Nationals’ delay in sharing their lineup, Hinch said. Hinch assumed the delay derived from the status of ailing catcher Kurt Suzuki, who exited Game 3 with an injury. “I have no problem with how they informed us,” Hinch said. “They were top-end across the board. If I put myself in their shoes, I would wait until the absolute last minute as well.”
Game 6 starter Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ other ace, said teammates were aware Scherzer was physically compromised before Sunday. “Guys were talking in the clubhouse,” Strasburg said. “Everybody is dealing with the effects of a long season. You really try to focus on things you can control.”
“Joe’s kind of done a little bit of everything this year,” Strasburg said of Ross. “He’s such a great competitor. He’s such a great athlete. I trust his ability to prepare.”
Strasburg said the Nationals never considered starting him on short rest rather than having him start Game 6 as scheduled. Martinez said Ross could throw between 75 and 80 pitches. “We’re going to let him go as much as he can,” Martinez said.
Scherzer is the most decorated and highest-paid ace in Nationals history. He signed a seven-year, $210 million contract before the 2015 season and became one of the best free agent signings ever. He won two Cy Young Awards, threw two no-hitters and recorded a 20-strikeout game. He has been an all-star every season since joining Washington, and to end the first half of this season he turned in perhaps the best nine-start stretch of his career, posting an 0.84 ERA and 94 strikeouts against nine walks across 64 innings.
When the Nationals dropped Game 4, players in the clubhouse expressed confidence they could bounce back in Game 5 because of Scherzer. They now don’t have him, but closer Sean Doolittle told MLB Network on the field before the game that no one is panicking. He cited the poor start to this season, the deficit in the National League wild-card game and the difficult comeback against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Division Series.
“We’re going to bet on ourselves,” Doolittle said. “After everything we’ve been through this season … we’re totally comfortable in this situation.”
Ross, 26, went 4-4 this season with a 5.48 ERA in 27 appearances, nine of which came as a starter. Friday night in Game 3, Ross fired two scoreless innings of relief against the Astros, allowing one hit. Ross relies on two pitches, a sinker and slider, and will almost exclusively use his curveball, change-up and four-seam fastball against left-handed hitters. The Astros shifted their lineup from the first two games at Nationals Park and started Yordan Alvarez despite his limited mobility in left field. Ross has struggled against left-handed hitters overall this season and especially against sluggers such as Alvarez.
Martinez, for his part, spoke to his players before he announced the news and explained the situation. The manager found all of his players upbeat, as Doolittle later reflected. Scherzer drove home the point during his news conference.
“Watching Joe Ross pitch the other night, he looked extremely polished in what he was able to do,” Scherzer said. “In our clubhouse, we just believe the next guy up can always get the job done.”