ATLANTA -- There was a time, long ago, when Max Scherzer asked out of a game.
This was back in Spring 2005, on a Friday night for the University of Missouri against rival Nebraska. It was well before Scherzer developed the type of manic mound presence that has seen him scream at his manager, demand greater workloads, glare at his detractors, and otherwise stake ownership to the 18-foot circle of dirt he occupies every fifth day.
This was back when Scherzer was still a college sophomore trying to define his place in the baseball universe. After holding the Cornhuskers to a single run over seven innings, Scherzer returned to the dugout and told his coach, Tim Jamieson, that he was done for the night. Scherzer’s counterpart, Joba Chamberlain, had long since departed. But Jamieson, knowing Nebraska’s middle of the order was due to bat, decided to ask Scherzer for three more outs. His young pitcher relented, breezing through the inning before returning to the dugout somehow changed.
Scherzer, who hadn’t even wanted the ball in the eighth, demanded it for the ninth. He finished with 133 pitches and a win.
“The one thing about Max that has always amazed me is his ability to dial it up in a moment,” Jamieson said. “Even at his age … he has the ability to elevate who he is.”
The Dodgers are counting on it. Sixteen years after that final pitch in Nebraska, Scherzer is set to take the mound at Truist Park for National League Championship Series Game 6 on Saturday. He has a chance to pitch the Dodgers into a decisive Game 7 against a Braves team that blew a 3-1 lead to Los Angeles just one year ago.
It’s why the Dodgers acquired Scherzer from the Nationals in a six-player blockbuster at this year’s Trade Deadline. And it’s why -- after relying on him to close out Game 5 of the NL Division Series, to start three other games already this postseason, and more generally, to deliver them to this spot at a time when so much of their pitching staff has been battered -- they will turn to Scherzer with confidence in Game 6.
“I mean, the guy’s always just such a -- he’s Max Scherzer,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, at a loss for more descriptive nouns or adjectives. “He’s tough. He never gives in. He’s going to fight you.”
In Game 6, Scherzer will wrestle the Braves for every strike and every out, because that is his job. But his aggression is not limited to the opposing lineup. Since that college game at Nebraska, Scherzer has developed an intensity unmatched by all but his most hardened peers.
"As a starter, you only get to pitch once a week, so you have six other days to kind of relax and be cool," Scherzer said. "But then when it’s your turn, it’s definitely your turn and you get to set the tone."
Consider the 2019 game against the Reds in which Scherzer struck out his 14th batter of the day on his 117th pitch. When he looked up to see Nationals manager Davey Martínez approaching from the dugout, Scherzer stared at him incredulously and shouted: “No!” He eventually won that argument, staying in the game to strike out the next batter, Joey Votto, on three more pitches.
Four years earlier, after his Nationals had fallen out of realistic postseason contention, manager Matt Williams decided it would be sensible to ask Scherzer if he wanted to continue in the seventh inning of a relatively meaningless game against the Marlins. In response, Scherzer barked out a string of four-letter words. Why even ask? So emphatic was Scherzer that video of the mound visit went viral.
Then there was the episode earlier this summer, when Phillies manager Joe Girardi, in an apparent attempt at gamesmanship, asked umpires to check Scherzer for tacky substances in the middle of an inning. Exasperated at the multiple delays, Scherzer threw his glove to the ground, tossed his hat beside it, then ripped his belt out its pant loops. Later, Scherzer stared down Girardi as he walked to the dugout.
“He’s always kind of had that -- I wouldn’t say over-the-top, but just that very competitive nature,” said his former teammate Alex Avila, who has caught more of Scherzer’s starts than any other catcher. “It’s just the seriousness of how he takes his craft.”
It is, Scherzer’s friends and teammates say, the seriousness of how he takes everything. Like many players, Scherzer is an avid fantasy footballer, often helping organize leagues in the clubhouses he has called home. One year in Detroit, irritated by Scherzer’s constant reminders for everyone to pay in advance of their draft, Avila decided he would refuse to follow the rule. Over and over, in the days leading up to the event, Scherzer reminded Avila that failure to pay would cost him a fourth-round pick. Over and over, Avila replied that he fully intended to pay -- but not until after the draft.
So intense was the argument that at one point, another teammate, Rick Porcello, stepped in to offer to pay for Avila.
“I was like, ‘No, it’s a matter of principle now,’” Avila recalled, laughing. “‘I’ll give him the money as soon as the last pick is done,’ which I ended up doing. Out of principle, I didn’t have my fourth-round pick. And that season, I beat him twice. He was always game for competition like that.”
Jamieson, Scherzer’s college coach, compared his personality to Michael Jordan, in that “he’s been really good at firing himself up and finding things to help motivate his success … to prove people wrong.” For years, Scherzer felt miffed that Jamieson never allowed him to hit in college. Even deep into his pro career, whenever Jamieson texted him congratulations after wins, Scherzer would respond with a list of his offensive statistics.
“He’s always finding something to compete against or overcome,” Jamieson said.
Saturday, Scherzer will turn those intensities toward the Braves, who have beaten him nine times -- the most of any team -- in 27 career starts. A win would send the Dodgers to a winner-take-all Game 7, extending their unbeaten streak in elimination games to eight. A loss would send them home.
Scherzer, a likely Hall of Famer who won his first World Series ring with the Nationals in 2019, pitching five innings in the decisive Game 7, has little left to prove in terms of legacy. But he has everything to prove in terms of his own manic desire to compete.
“There’s a reason he’s won what, three Cy Youngs and could potentially get his fourth this year,” said Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson. “His competitive edge on the mound is something that's always a part of what he does, as well, so I feel like you’ve just got to go out there and kind of try and -- I’m not going to say match his aggressiveness, but you’ve got to be ready to compete. Because he’s all in, too.”