“What a tough break. We all feel terrible [for Scherzer],” said the matriarch of the Lerner family, often affectionately called the brains of the outfit by her large family. Then she paused.
“You got to have heart. Miles and miles and miles of heart,” she quoted from the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees.” “We’re going to need it tonight.”
Just a few minutes later, Scherzer, walking gingerly and stiffly, barely able to move his neck, came to the media room to discuss the shocking development.
Never, not in a lifetime, have you seen the player many call Mad Max so suddenly and forlornly transformed into Sad Max.
“Started a couple of days ago . . . I’ve had little neck spasms [in] the past. I know how to get through them. . . . Little adjustments keep it from blowing up on me,” said Scherzer, who once had to come out of a game after one inning in Miami and once went on the disabled list — the only time in his career to that point — after similar spasms drove him off the mound. “Came in [Saturday] . . . thought we found a way to ease this spasm. . . . I was able to play catch. . . .
“Then when I woke up this morning I was completely locked up. The nerve that’s in the neck is all jammed up. . . . It became impossible just to do any menial task whatsoever today,” he said, disgusted.
Then Scherzer flared, jaw tight. “I’ve pitched through so much crap in my life,” he said. “I’m as disappointed as I possibly can be not to be [starting]. It’s Game 5 of the World Series.”
Asked whether he thought that the irregularity of postseason starts or being used for one inning of relief 23 days ago could be related, Scherzer said: “Absolutely not. This is just a little thing that turned into a big thing that turned into a giant thing. . . .
“There’s been other little times where I’ve been able to have it and get out of it. But this is the most severe one of all time.”
And at the worst possible time. The work ethic — or borderline-insanity — of pro athletes is illustrated by Scherzer’s reaction to being unable to lift his arm. Since he has been told a cortisone shot takes 48 hours to be effective, Scherzer decided against one Saturday and crossed his fingers. On Sunday, a few hours before his team lost Game 5, 7-1, the shot was the only choice.
“I’m just hoping that the doctors are right and that something could be possible for Game 7,” Scherzer said. Game 7, if the series goes that far, would be Wednesday night in Houston.
Earlier this season, Scherzer pitched and shut down the Phillies with a whopper of a black eye and a broken nose — self-inflicted — from a fouled bunt during batting practice the previous day.
It would show a poor grasp of baseball history to dismiss the Nationals’ chances of winning this series. Two years ago, with the Nats facing elimination, Stephen Strasburg shut down the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, fanning a dozen in seven innings, to force a Game 5. Strasburg carved through a fearsome Cubs lineup with such precision that, later, Chicago star Anthony Rizzo acknowledged his team had no chance.
Strasburg will start Game 6 of this World Series, has been brilliant for his past dozen starts and, with Justin Verlander as a foe or not, may well force a Game 7.
In all sports, a Game 7 exists in a world of its own — an unpredictable subspecies that breeds unexpected heroes. A matchup of Zack Greinke vs. Aníbal Sánchez, at least for the first few innings, could go in any direction. The Nats would have Patrick Corbin, on three days’ rest, in the bullpen. And maybe a very Mad Max, too.
A half-hour before the game, Ross was given a standing ovation by a nearly packed Nationals Park as he walked slowly and alone from the dugout to the outfield to begin his stretching. Sometimes the coolest moments are unscripted and exist independent of what happens next. If a crowd can lift an athlete, this one would try.
When Ross got José Altuve to ground into a double play for the first outs of the game, the crowd of 43,910 erupted as if it was the final out. The crowds stood and chanted “Let’s go, Joe” for the whole inning. Regardless of the final score, those moments will be hard to forget.
However, the World Series is not a movie, and there definitely was a final score: an Astros win built on a pair of two-run home runs off Ross, by Yordan Alvarez in the second inning and Carlos Correa in the fourth. Ross deserved his chants. But that four-run deficit rendered moot a pitchers’ duel, which Scherzer vs. Cole might have been.
While it’s true that you got to have heart, you also must have bats to score some runs. For the third straight game, the Nats were suffocated. This time, at least they had an excuse — Cole looked every bit like the guy who struck out 363 batters this season, including these playoffs.
Strasburg may not need a great deal of support in Game 6, but this offense will need more than the one run it produced in each of the games at Nationals Park.
What the sight of Scherzer, as well as his words, should underscore to fans is the incredible amount of pain and endurance required to play major league baseball. Scouts like to describe a player’s five tools — hit, hit for power, run, field and throw. The sixth, acknowledged if unspoken, is always “availability.” Can you master or train your body to play when others might not be able to stand?
Recently, I asked Ryan Zimmerman, 35, how long it took him to “prepare” for a game with all the therapies, massages, chiropractic procedures, stretching and injury-specific exercises he required to loosen or alleviate his chronically injured heel, back and shoulder, as well as any new dings incurred during a 162-game season.
“Hours, every day,” Zimmerman said, “just to be able to get on the field. And that’s when you’re ‘healthy.’ People have no idea.
“They also don’t want to hear about it. And they shouldn’t have to hear about it,” said Zimmerman, who actually refused to explain or list what he does to get ready that can take two to three hours.
“It’s just part of the game — always has been. We’re well paid,” he said, wryly. “We love the game. We go through it — until we can’t.
“A couple of years after every guy retires, they come back around and tell you how great they feel, how young,” Zimmerman said, laughing. “You think, ‘Yeah, that’s because you just played golf. You aren’t playing pro baseball every day, month after month, anymore.
“Hey, it’s all good,” Zimmerman said. “But we all know.”
They all know the times, time after time, when Max Scherzer has found a way to post, to pitch a game you probably thought was masterful when he was just trying to get his body to manufacture a facsimile of a pitching motion until more constant rehabilitation could make him slightly better five days later. The act of throwing over 100 pitches at full force, according to doctors, is an injury, in and of itself — you just recover from it in four days, then injure yourself again.
“Thankfully, from what the doctors say, as long as I have no numbness coming down my arms, you don’t actually deal with any serious long-term damage here,” Scherzer said. “. . . But I can’t pick up my arm right now. So I can’t pitch.”
After Game 5, in the Nats’ clubhouse, Scherzer came around a corner, reached into his locker and, in a blink and with no apparent discomfort, sped into his pants and shirt, his right arm working fine as it went over his head. This is no mystery. Cortisone works. It can mask injuries, not heal them and lead to other problems. And by Game 7, if there is one, Scherzer may be back in misery.
But if there is a Game 7, Scherzer will have his spikes on, pacing the dugout, cheering his teammates. Whether he can pitch, and how much, only he will know. But if that day, and that game comes, he won’t be tipping his hand to the Astros. Could he even feel good enough to start Game 7?
“That’s what we’re hoping,” said GM Mike Rizzo, looking something like a cat with bird feathers coming from out of his mouth.
Let ’em worry.
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