In 1st start since save, Max's 'arm was dead'
ATLANTA -- Three days ago, Dave Roberts sat at a podium in San Francisco, victorious after five grueling games against the Giants in the National League Division Series. Having deployed ace Max Scherzer for the first save of his career in the finale, the Dodgers manager made an admission.
"There is a cost," Roberts said.
Turns out, it was a steep one.
In the Dodgers’ 5-4 loss to the Braves in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday night, Scherzer clearly wasn't himself. He exited after only 79 pitches, having allowed two runs -- on a Joc Pederson fourth-inning homer -- over 4 1/3 innings. More concerning was the reason why:
“My arm was dead,” Scherzer said. “I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired. … Usually in those situations, once you get past pitch 45, sometimes it loosens up, and you're able to get deeper into a game. But after that third inning, it didn't loosen up. It was still more tightening up. So I could tell that my pitch count was going to be limited.”
In Scherzer’s estimation, his arm’s condition was the product of a grueling, unfamiliar workload over the past couple of weeks. He’s now pitched four times in 12 days since the playoffs began. Scherzer threw 110 pitches in Game 3 of the NLDS six days ago. Then he threw 13 of the highest-leverage pitches imaginable to finish off the Giants three days ago.
Then, Scherzer took the ball for Game 2 at Truist Park with the Dodgers trailing in the series, 1-0. His fastball velocity averaged 93.6 mph, a tick below his season average, and he said he relied more heavily on his changeup as a result.
“He sort of hit a wall,” Roberts said. “After that fourth inning, he said he was starting to feel it a little bit. That's why going into that fifth inning, it was going to be a short leash. When I took the ball, he said, ‘I gave it all I had.’ That's what you want from a player.”
Typically, of course, Scherzer has a whole lot more to offer. He had thrown at least 90 pitches in seven straight starts. The Dodgers won each of his first 12 outings after acquiring him at the Trade Deadline, including the Wild Card Game against the Cardinals. They didn’t win his NLDS start against the Giants, but he worked seven innings of one-run ball.
The Dodgers had initially planned to start Scherzer in Game 1 of the NLCS. But his services were required in the bottom of the ninth inning of a winner-take-all Game 5, with the Dodgers clinging to a one-run lead. A day later, after a cross-country flight, Scherzer played catch in Atlanta and reported some lingering fatigue.
The team made the decision to push Scherzer’s start back by one day. He had pitched on two days' rest once before and figured this time might be similar. In 2019, Scherzer appeared out of the bullpen in Game 2 of the 2019 NLDS, pitching for the Nationals against the Dodgers.
“If I had to realistically guess what my pitch count was going to be today, based on that experience, I thought it was going to be 95 pitches,” Scherzer said. “Unfortunately, it wasn't.”
Scherzer doesn’t envision any lingering effects from his dead arm. He’s dealt with arm fatigue in the past, and right now, he simply needs a reset.
“What I'm dealing with is just: My arm's dead,” Scherzer said. “It wasn't like I'm dealing with tendons or ligaments. No, I wasn't dealing with red-flag injuries. It was just: My arm was tired. I went out there and pitched as much as I could today.”
That makes a short-rest start for Scherzer in a potential Game 5 seem very unlikely. Barring an emergency, he probably wouldn’t be available out of the ‘pen either. Scherzer’s next start wouldn’t come until Game 6, which could force the Dodgers into another bullpen day in Game 5.
With two off-days sandwiched around three games in Los Angeles, that would give Scherzer an extra day of rest on top of the usual four. But there’s also no guarantee the Dodgers get to a Game 6 in the first place.
Without Scherzer on the mound, they lost Game 1. With Scherzer at less than full strength, they lost Game 2. Given those results, it’s worth revisiting the Dodgers’ last series and wondering why it’s taken such a serious toll on this one.
Could the Dodgers have avoided using Scherzer in Game 5 in San Francisco? In theory, they could’ve asked for another inning from any one of Julio Urías, Blake Treinen or Kenley Jansen. Then again, the outcome might have been different.
The fact remains: The Dodgers are here. They’re still playing baseball. If Scherzer hadn’t pitched a scoreless ninth inning in San Francisco, they might not be. (Better to be trailing a postseason series, after all, than to be watching it from home.)
Still, from the start, the Dodgers knew there would be a price to pay if they used Scherzer on Thursday night. Now, they trail Atlanta 2-0 in the NLCS. Costly, indeed.