WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Here was Max Scherzer, now the model of what any team ready to throw money at a big thrower hopes to get from a free-agent starter, sitting in front of his locker at a few minutes after eight o’clock, ready to get some work in
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Here was Max Scherzer, now the model of what any team ready to throw money at a big thrower hopes to get from a free-agent starter, sitting in front of his locker at a few minutes after eight o’clock, ready to get some work in before his second Spring Training start on Thursday. Scherzer has not only been one of the elite starters in his time -- he has been as tough as any of them. Anybody who still didn’t know that found out last October.
We were talking about Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, Nationals against the Astros. On a night when the opposing starter, Zack Grienke, was pitching the game of his life, Scherzer was just glad to be pitching at all, having been scratched from his Game 5 start, at home, because of neck spasms that he recalled on Wednesday morning had “just locked me up.”
We hear all the time in baseball about how tough an out this guy or that guy is. On that October night, the toughest out was the guy on the mound, trying to get the game to the Nationals’ bullpen, and get all of Washington, D.C., to the World Series trophy. There are a lot of ace pitchers in the game you’d want getting the ball in a Game 7. Scherzer is the one I’d want.
“I’d pitched in a lot of deciding games in my career,” Scherzer said. He started counting them off on his fingers until he got to six.
“But you had to think about this one differently,” I said. “This was Game 7 of the Series. Most guys can go their whole careers without knowing if they’d be good enough in Game 7 of the Series.”
“I just believed that we were going to win,” he said. “I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t too pumped for the moment. I believed we were going to win and that I could do the job that night. And what the job really was that night was for me to lay it all on the line.”
Scherzer laid it all on the line, and it was something to see, and to remember.
“Not gonna lie, it was a grind,” he said. “But I’d spent September getting myself ready to throw 100 pitches. And then I had 100 in me that night.”
Did Scherzer have his best stuff against the Astros that night in Minute Maid Park? He did not. There were always guys on the bases. But he threw 103 pitches, struck out three and walked four, and even though he left with the score 2-0 for Houston, he simply refused to let the Astros bust the game wide open. And then the Nationals came from behind again, the way they had been coming from behind since their National League Wild Card Game against the Brewers, scoring six runs over the final three innings to win the World Series. When it was all over, Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg had been as formidable a partnership in a baseball October as Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling had been for the D-backs in 2001.
Scherzer and Strasburg started 10 games between them. Each of them pitched once in relief. Strasburg was 5-0 in October. Scherzer was 3-0, with a 2.40 ERA, 30 innings pitched and 37 strikeouts. At age 35. In the fifth year of the seven-year contract he signed with the Nationals after he left the Detroit Tigers. In those five years, he has never had an ERA over three runs a game. He has won two NL Cy Young Awards to go with the American League one he won with the Tigers.
Again: He is the kind of free-agent starter -- 30 years old when the Nationals signed him -- that all the other teams are looking for, at any age. The Yankees just signed Gerrit Cole to a nine-year contract worth $324 million. You know who they want Cole to be? They want him to be Max Scherzer, who has done everything the Nationals wanted him to do and been who they hoped he would be and who finally helped pitch them to the first World Series title for a team in Washington, D.C., in nearly 100 years.
And even four months after the parade through downtown Washington, he will not make any excuses about his physical state throughout what became a magical run for his team. He said that the kind of neck issues he had before Game 5 can go away as quickly as they come for an athlete; said that if the Nationals had needed him to come out of the bullpen in Game 6, he could have pitched that night.
“Looking back,” he said, “I honestly felt, until I had the neck issues, that I was firing on all cylinders by the time we got to the Series.”
There is this notion that there is nothing riskier than a long-term contract for a starting pitcher at age 30 or older. Max Scherzer has made a lie out of that. He remains one of the great pitchers of his time as he approaches his 36th birthday this summer, with a lifetime record of 170-89. He was 82-35 in his five years with the Tigers. He is 79-39 in the five years since. The Nationals have gotten everything they paid for and more. This time, with Mad Max, the mad money paid off.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.