HOUSTON -- In Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart’s estimation, there was maybe a 20 percent chance that Max Scherzer would take the mound. This was back in June, when Scherzer fouled a bunt off his nose during batting practice. With Scherzer’s start scheduled for the next day, Nationals staffers ran him through the requisite battery of tests, before sending him home uncertain of his status.
He arrived at Nationals Park the following morning with his nose still broken, a purple welt encircling his right eye and a scowl of defiance on his face. Scherzer told the Nationals in no uncertain terms that he was going to pitch, then went out and threw seven scoreless innings in a performance that teammate Sean Doolittle called “vintage Max.” Six days later, still recovering, Scherzer threw eight more fine innings. Given his way, Doolittle wouldn’t have minded him pitching the rest of the season in that condition.
“I just wanted to see if his Hall of Fame plaque would have had the crooked nose on it,” he said.
The plaque, at least, seems inevitable for a three-time Cy Young Award winner on a short list of the best pitchers of his generation. The only thing lacking on Scherzer’s baseball card is a World Series ring -- something he hopes to take a step toward changing when he starts Game 1 Tuesday against the Astros. Stephen Strasburg will pitch Game 2 against Justin Verlander, with the rest of Washington’s rotation fluid.
Scherzer has appeared in the Fall Classic once before, in 2012 with the Tigers. He is a different pitcher now, a better pitcher with a singular mission to win a title.
“You just know you’ve got to come out there, you’re going to be throwing up zeros,” Scherzer said. “And you've got to try to match the intensity from your opponent.”
In truth, Astros Game 1 starter Gerrit Cole may find it difficult to match Scherzer’s intensity -- not the other way around. In terms of histrionics, Scherzer has few peers, stomping around the mound after strikeouts and yelling -- often at himself, sometimes at others. Earlier this season, when Nationals manager Dave Martinez emerged from the dugout in the eighth inning of a game, Scherzer screamed, “No!” upon seeing him. He was at 117 pitches.
“He’s crazy,” Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “The funny thing is he’s crazy like that, but if you talk to him, you’ll be amazed at how smart this guy is.”
That package of intensity and intelligence is something Scherzer’s first big league pitching coach, Bryan Price, noticed immediately upon his debut in 2008. Between starts, Scherzer would not only study film, but also reams of statistics that his brother presented to him. This was before the days of analytics armies populating baseball front offices, so much of the data was more advanced than what the D-backs generally provided to their pitchers. Scherzer consumed the metrics, then applied them.
In the clubhouse, Scherzer poured himself into his workouts, trying to evolve from an inefficient starting pitcher to the type capable of going seven or eight innings with regularity. In time, he did, eclipsing 200 innings for the first time in 2013 and leading the National League in that category in ’16 and leading the Majors in ’18. He threw two no-hitters. He made seven All-Star teams. He thrived in the postseason. Astros outfielder Josh Reddick called the experience of facing Scherzer “life-shortening.”
Since 2013, Scherzer leads the Majors in innings, strikeouts and wins. He is third in ERA.
“He’s just really one of the greats of his generation,” Price said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Numbers, of course, are one thing. Facing Scherzer, as he stares and stomps and demands the baseball, is quite another. To see Scherzer truly is to see the man with a crooked nose and a black eye, pitching seven shutout innings because he sees no other option. It is to see the pitcher wholly invested in each workout, each meeting, each batting-practice session, each bit of daily life that he thinks might make him better. Nationals catcher Yan Gomes noted that there’s “nothing quite like it.”
“But you understand why he’s the kind of player he is,” Gomes added.
Because he is that type of player, Scherzer may not need a ring to cement a legacy that is largely already in place. It’s the Nationals who won’t win easily without Scherzer at his obsessive best.
“He loves a challenge,” Menhart said. “He loves a challenge in anything he does. So this is a big challenge for him right now.”