'He did what he had to do': Gutsy G7 for Max

Nats' ace holds Astros to two runs, stranding nine on base

October 31st, 2019

HOUSTON -- Sunday morning, Erica Scherzer said, was “awful ... awful ... one of the worst days of my life.” Scheduled to start Game 5 of the World Series in Washington, Scherzer’s husband, Max, woke up in severe neck pain. He could not move his right arm. Unable to sit up, he rolled out of bed instead. Erica dressed him.

Doctors told that cortisone would help, but he would need to be patient, avoiding baseball activities for at least 24 hours. If all went well, and if the Nationals extended the Series, Scherzer would have a chance to pitch. Erica urged her husband to listen to their advice, even if privately she had her doubts.

“I know it’s hard to see that when he’s out here right now,” she said, standing next to the pitcher’s mound at Minute Maid Park, “but at that moment, it looked really, really bad. ... He could not move. We’ve been together 15 years. I’ve never seen him in that much pain.”

“I was a mess,” Max Scherzer said. “I couldn’t raise my arm above my head. I felt like I was letting the team down.”

That the cortisone worked, that Scherzer recovered enough to bull his way through five innings in Game 7, is now part of legend. That he stood in the clubhouse after the Nationals’ 6-2 win over the Astros, a pair of swim goggles affixed to his head and the World Series trophy clutched in both hands, might have seemed improbable had this been anyone else. Scherzer is Scherzer for a reason. His five-inning, two-run performance held Houston in check long enough for Washington’s offense and bullpen to do the rest.

When they did, Scherzer ripped his shirt off on the field, balling it into one hand as he donned a World Series champions T-shirt in its place. This time, he needed no help to dress. Scherzer had done his part and more, adding the one missing piece to a Hall of Fame resume, throwing the one shirt he always wanted over his back.

“Man,” Scherzer said. “What a feeling.”

For Scherzer, that joy was well-earned. He did not pitch a clean inning all night. Scherzer did not pitch at all with a lead. Yuli Gurriel homered to lead off the second inning, and the Astros never stopped pressing, putting multiple runners on base in the second, third, fourth and fifth. Scherzer escaped most of those jams without any damage, save for a Carlos Correa RBI single. He followed that up with a strikeout of Robinson Chirinos on his 103rd and final pitch.

For the first time in 258 career regular-season and postseason starts, Scherzer walked more batters than he struck out, snapping the longest streak by a pitcher in the live-ball era. He allowed seven hits, as well as six balls in play with exit velocities of at least 100 mph.

“We put a lot of heat on him,” Houston manager AJ Hinch said. “We made him work.”

Added Scherzer: “It was an absolute fight just trying to keep it where it was.”

As all this was happening, the Nats’ bullpen stayed mostly quiet. Relievers shuffled about from time to time behind a screened fence, but none of them made a move to begin throwing. In the dugout, pitching coach Paul Menhart figured: “If we’re going to win a World Series, we’re going to go with our ace.”

And so the Nationals stuck with Scherzer even as he gave up hit after hit, line-drive out after line-drive out.

Five years ago, upon signing a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals, Scherzer said at his introductory press conference that his intention was to win. He did his part without fail, making the National League All-Star team each summer and collecting two Cy Young Awards. Scherzer developed a reputation over the years as one of the best of his generation, a future Hall of Famer with few peers in the modern game. The Nats could count on him nearly without exception until Sunday, when suddenly, for one night, they couldn’t.

To return from that was a testament, Menhart said, to Scherzer’s “will and hunger to compete.” Even Erica Scherzer said she “honestly did not expect this,” knowing the sort of pain her husband was feeling. Even she could not have fully anticipated, three days later, posing on the mound with a Nationals flag in her hand, the words “Fight Finished” scrawled beneath the logo.

“He did what he had to do,” Erica Scherzer said, as if it were that easy, as if her husband were not one of only a precious few people on this earth who could.