He clenched his whole body and flexed his arms, and if the thunder in the stadium hadn’t drowned him out, then the thunder from the bottom of Max Scherzer’s lungs would have filled the building. He hasn’t been himself recently, this three-time Cy Young winner. He was Monday night, when the only acceptable outcome was to be just that. The Washington Nationals’ season lives because of it. Don’t underestimate how hard it was, at that point, to even give out the energy to celebrate.
“My arm is hanging right now,” Scherzer said. “That pushed me all the way to the edge — and then some.”
But what is the edge with this guy? After 109 pitches provided that full-body flex, it can officially go down as TBD. He has, in this series, a three-hitters-three-strikeout performance in Game 2, and then Monday’s masterpiece in Game 4, the backbone of a 6-1 victory in which Scherzer reinvented himself on the fly — and Ryan Zimmerman finally delivered the big hit, a three-run homer that broke open the game.
So, then, Wednesday evening, Dodger Stadium, another win-or-go-home game for this franchise? Stephen Strasburg will start. And we should listen to Scherzer, who moved slowly late Monday night, creaky beyond his 35 years.
“I can’t imagine any scenario where I’m pitching,” he said.
Be honest with yourself, given what we have learned in the past week, since this postseason ride began: If the bullpen gate swings open and the fifth game of this National League Division Series is at its most taut moment, would you be surprised to see Scherzer emerge, nostrils flaring?
No. No, you would not.
“Typical Max,” Manager Dave Martinez said.
Flight to Los Angeles? Hop on Max. He’s back.
Typical Max, though, was MIA for most of the past six weeks — save for that 14-pitch dismantling of the Dodgers in the eighth inning of Game 2. The Nationals’ ace had a rocky year with a difficult-to-grasp injury, made rehab starts at the major league level, posted an un-Max-like 4.74 ERA down the stretch, walked the first hitter he faced in the postseason and allowed a homer to the second.
When that wild-card game against Milwaukee opened last week, Scherzer contained competing forces. On a random Tuesday in June when it’s his turn to start, his glare could scare a hardened criminal. In the postseason, somehow he gets more amped. He has no surge protector. Might he blow out?
Therein lies the reinvention to face the National League’s best offense three days after his normal side session turned into competition in the cauldron. This isn’t a contest about who has the hairiest chest. Keep 99 mph in your pocket — and pitch.
“It almost looked like he was pitching because he knew he needed to go deep into the game,” Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart said. “It really did. He made an honest effort not to just embarrass the guys on the other team as much as he usually does.”
How out of character. Consider that Scherzer spent Sunday’s Game 3 yanking on Martinez’s pant leg.
“He’s ready to pinch-hit,” Martinez said. “He’s ready to pinch-run. He said, ‘I could pitch an inning.’ And I said, ‘Hey, buddy, you know, if we had to, you might pitch 140 pitches tomorrow, so just get your rest.’”
Martinez was only 31 short on that pitch count. But you get the kind of conversation he might hear Wednesday, when the Nats will try to advance to the NLCS for the first time in club history. Washington expects excellence from Strasburg, a pitcher whose postseason ERA is 0.64. Scherzer was spent Monday night. Yet he will be there, some cross between a puppy and an attack dog: “Can I have the ball? How about now? When? What about now? Now?” Tongue out. Pantpantpantpantpant.
To even imagine that dynamic, Scherzer had to pitch as he did Monday night. Yeah, Justin Turner, the relentless Dodgers third baseman, got him for a two-out solo shot in the first. But he used everything he had to get through the Los Angeles lineup the first time, striking out only opposing pitcher Rich Hill. By the fourth, he ratcheted the velocity up — a 97-mph fastball set down rookie Gavin Lux, and he struck out the side in the fifth.
This couldn’t be five or six innings of inefficiency, even if it was effective. The Nationals are trying to pass a law that will prevent Wander Suero and Hunter Strickland from appearing in games for the rest of the year, but given the polarized nature of the electorate, they don’t yet have the votes. So Scherzer needed to carry them.
“I knew I needed to make a full-on start,” he said. “I know there’s times in the regular season where you’re not fresh, where you come into a game and you got to conserve where you’re at — try to almost pitch more — and today was one of those days.”
It’s remarkable what a fine line he — and all the Nats’ pitchers — have to live by. In the fifth, it was still 1-1 — and dangerous. In 23 games headed into Monday night, do you even want to know the all-time postseason numbers for the Nats? Consider this a spoiler alert. Read on at your own peril.
That would be a .206 batting average, a .285 on-base percentage and a .329 slugging percentage for a .614 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
Deep breaths. Remember, they won Monday night.
The lack of production in the playoffs has put an inordinate amount of pressure on the Nats’ rotation. That’s fine. That’s how they’re built, and the current rotation has three pitchers who could be paid $525 million over the course of their contracts.
But the angst over past Nats losses has so often centered around the pitching. Why couldn’t Drew Storen get one more strike against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012? Why did Matt Williams lift Jordan Zimmermann against the San Francisco Giants in 2014? Why did Dusty Baker leave Scherzer in against the Dodgers in 2016? What the heck happened to Scherzer in his inning of relief against the Chicago Cubs in 2017?
So once Zimmerman belted a Pedro Báez offering through the wind in the fifth inning Monday night, Scherzer was a rare entity around here: A starting pitcher who could breathe. The bases-loaded situation came in the seventh — a single and two walks, as he was tiring. But it was with a five-run lead.
And so Scherzer went to work. With one out, he faced pinch hitter Chris Taylor with a full count — and got him to swing through a slider. Two outs. He was done. Here came Menhart to the mound.
What did Scherzer say?
“He told me he loved me,” Menhart said.
“I was just gassed,” Scherzer said. “I was out.”
Whatever it was, even with left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle ready to face left-handed Joc Pederson, Scherzer remained in. When Pederson ripped a ball down the right field line, the game could have swung.
“The ball’s an inch foul,” Scherzer said. “It could have been an inch fair.”
It wasn’t. The next pitch, Pederson rolled over. Then came the body flex. Next comes the flight to Los Angeles. Wait for the pleas to pitch Wednesday. Max Scherzer deemed that inconceivable Monday night. But who will stop him when the Nats could — finally — advance?
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.