SAN FRANCISCO -- For the most important inning of the most important game of their season, the Dodgers had one card left to play in their Game 5 pitching gamble. It was a good one: Max Scherzer.
“Knowing you have an ace in the hole,” manager Dave Roberts would say afterward, “is a good feeling.”
Even if Scherzer perhaps got a bit of help with a favorable check-swing call to end the game, it was quite a time for the first save of his remarkable 14-year career. It was also a fitting end to the Dodgers’ unconventional Game 5 pitching gameplan, which unfolded to near perfection.
“I just know how these situations go,” Scherzer said. “When you go down to the ‘pen, you better expect the ball. Your number's going to get called. You’ve got to assume that and mentally know to get ready for it. When your number's going to get called, you're ready for the moment.”
Three days prior, Scherzer had started Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. Even in a loss, he pitched brilliantly, allowing just one run over seven innings, throwing 110 high-stress pitches. It wasn’t long afterward that Scherzer began planning for a potential Game 5 in San Francisco.
When the Dodgers won Game 4, the veteran right-hander skipped his scheduled bullpen session on Wednesday, saving his bullets for a potential one-inning appearance on Thursday night. He approached Dodgers decision-makers and let them know he wanted the ball.
“Max came to us yesterday and said, ‘Hey, whatever you need tomorrow night, I got you, I’ll be ready,’” said Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations. “Our plan, our hope was not to need him. But obviously we did. I think at this point, we can say it was a good trade.”
No kidding. The Dodgers landed Scherzer just before the Trade Deadline in July, then won each of his first 11 starts. That streak ended in Game 3 of the NLDS, but Scherzer hadn’t had his final say in this season’s most captivating rivalry.
“The season [the Giants] had and the fight they had in this series, I mean, it went down all the way to the last pitch,” Scherzer said. “Just a fight all season long. I'm just glad I got to join it midseason and be a part of this and be a part of the winning team.”
Thursday’s decisive NLDS Game 5 started just after 6 p.m. local time. But the game before the game began sometime around 10 the night before. That’s when Roberts shot a text to Giants manager Gabe Kapler, a courtesy to let him know that the Dodgers had changed their pitching plans.
Julio Urías would no longer be starting. That responsibility fell to Corey Knebel, as the Dodgers looked to create as many favorable matchups as they possibly could. By using a right-hander as an opener, they thought they might get a few extra left-handed bats into the Giants’ lineup for the lefty Urías.
The plan worked, though not without a few nervy moments. Knebel escaped trouble in the first. Brusdar Graterol did the same in the second. Then it was time for Urías, really the most integral piece in their strategy. Urías hadn’t pitched in relief all season, but he was brilliant out of the ‘pen on several occasions during the Dodgers’ 2020 World Series run.
“I can’t say enough about Julio,” Friedman said. “I saw comments that it’s not something that we would’ve done with other guys, and they’re probably right. But it’s more about how Julio can handle anything that is thrown at him.”
It all seemed to be unfolding an inning ahead of schedule -- that is, until Scherzer took off his jacket and began tossing in the right-center-field bullpen. As he warmed up, the Dodgers took the lead on Cody Bellinger’s RBI single in the top of the ninth. Matt Beaty grounded out to first baseman Wilmer Flores to end the Dodgers’ half of the frame, and the bullpen gates opened.
"I didn't even know he was coming in, so I went down. I had to use the restroom real quick," said center fielder Gavin Lux. "So I popped back up and I was like, 'Oh my God, Scherz is in the game.' So immediately I went to our strength coach and I was like, 'I'm fired up to see him in the game, there's nobody else I would rather see to close this thing out than Scherz,' so it fired me up."
“What I enjoyed the most [in the game] was before Flores even touched first base, Scherzer was halfway to the mound,” said Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts. “He was ready to come out and shut them down.”
Scherzer did exactly that. Only one Giants hitter reached base against him when Justin Turner booted Kris Bryant’s one-out grounder. Scherzer responded by striking out LaMonte Wade Jr. Then he threw a 0-2 slider to Wilmer Flores that was just off the plate. Flores thought he’d checked his swing. First-base ump Gabe Morales disagreed. Game over.
Scherzer raised both hands in the air, then embraced catcher Will Smith in front of the mound. At 37 years and 79 days old, he became the oldest pitcher to record a save in a winner-take-all postseason game since saves became a statistic in 1969. It wasn’t exactly the role the Dodgers envisioned when they traded for him, but they knew it was possible when they drew up their pitching plans on Wednesday night.
“Max was lobbying for the last couple days,” Roberts said. “Sometimes, you just got to trust the player. Like I said, there's a cost. But the most important thing today was to win this game, and I felt he was our best option.”
The cost? Now the Dodgers must figure out whether Scherzer is fresh enough to take the ball for Game 1 of the NLCS. Scherzer, himself, didn’t have an answer afterward, noting that he’d need to see how his arm feels on Friday.
That, of course, is a dilemma the Dodgers are happy to have.