SAN FRANCISCO – Three hours and 19 minutes after the best game in recent memory, a heavyweight bout in which both teams likely deserved the championship belt, a winner’s affair that lived up to the hype built up over the years. In the last two days, the door to the Oracle Park relievers pen slammed open.
Dodgers first baseman Matt Beaty, who had qualified for the final early in the ninth inning, knelt in the dirt, his head first slide barely over. The defenders of the Giants ran in their dugout canoe. Defensemen of the Dodgers gathered their gloves in theirs.
Max Scherzer did not expect any of them. It detonated across the outfield and onto the launcher’s mound, a place where he had spent some 500 hours, in March and April and May and June and July and August and September and October. Scherzer, 37, had pitched 2,660 major league innings, between the regular season and the playoffs, over 14 years and four teams. Only five other active launchers threw more. None entered the ninth inning to save a save.
Until Thursday, neither does Scherzer. But Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts called him in to preserve the Dodgers’ 2-1 lead in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Giants, the team they tried to keep. reduce the whole season. So Scherzer hurried.
“You have to want to be in this situation,” he said afterwards, his hair stinking of the champagne his teammates had sprayed on him after closing the win. “The ball was coming towards me. I had to take the ball. I had to go with everything I had, ready to go through them. I must be mentally blocked. Nothing would prevent me from winning this match. You have to believe in yourself that you have what it takes to pitch in these situations, so that you don’t get overcooked. So I just wanted to get there asap.
He had run to the bullpen after the start of the fourth inning, then spent the next four frames walking around, trying to keep his legs loose. He knew his arm would be strong. He knew his brain could take the pressure. But he was worried about those legs.
He saw 24-year-old Logan Webb, the youngest pitcher in San Francisco history to start a win-win game, mow down the league’s most formidable roster, as he had done six days earlier. Round after round he baffled LA with a repertoire straight out of 2014 – changes to his arm, sliders to his glove side, two seams down the middle. In seven dazzling innings, he induced as many weak on the ground (four) as he allowed hits.
But one of those hits was a sixth inning single from Mookie Betts, who went 4 for 4 and became the only Dodger to solve Webb. Another was a double from next hitter, Corey Seager, who scored Betts. The Giants responded with a home run from Darin Ruf in the lower frame, and Webb broke through the seventh.
Scherzer did the math. The Dodgers had originally planned to start left-hander Julio Urías, but announced ahead of the game that they would instead use an opener, right-hander Corey Knebel, in an effort to force the Giants into a sub-optimal formation. Knebel pitched an inning, as did right-hander Brusdar Graterol. Urías allowed them to pass the sixth. Roberts brought in the reliever with the best pure substance, right-hander Blake Treinen, but he didn’t pass him in the game. Treinen passed through San Francisco on 12 shots, but his place came second in the batting order the next inning, so Roberts hit him and ended his night. Kenley Jansen moved closer to him, who threw a perfect eighth.
For days, Roberts had insisted that Scherzer would be a spectator for Game 5. The ace had started the wilds game and then threw 110 pitches in NLDS Game 3, which the Dodgers had lost 1- 0.
“Right now, I’ll say he’s not available,” Roberts said after the Dodgers won in Game 4. “But I’m known to change my mind, so we’ll see.”
Scherzer changed Roberts’ mind. Prior to the series, he had offered to throw in relief in Game 2 on a short rest, then start Game 4. The Los Angeles front office rejected the idea. But after Game 3, he skipped his normal bullpen session and upper body weightlifting workout. When he arrived at Oracle Park on Thursday, he played wrestling and then informed the coaching staff that he was “hot and ready to go,” he said.
“I don’t think our ‘A’ plan was to go to him,” said president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. “Our ‘A’ plan was to be able to avoid it.”
They had hoped to use Jansen for six strikeouts. But LA gave the green light at the start of the ninth. This trade took the pitcher’s place to plate with two in and two out, so Roberts hit Beaty.
Scherzer was waiting behind the gate to the enclosure. it will be deafening, he reminded himself. You will not be able to hear or think. Use this energy to your advantage, but don’t spill it. Stay within you.
He found himself unable to describe this race from the bullpen. He decided, “Man, what a feeling,” and added, “It would be fun to be closer.”
The warm-up was different. The stakes were different. The break-in was different. But he arrived and found the mound to be the same. He could shoot his four-seam machine at 96 mph, his biting cursor, his deceptive cutter.
Still, he wasn’t happy with every pitch he threw. “I left with a couple,” he said. “A few of those cutters in the back, they weren’t even supposed to be there, so sometimes the baseball gods are good.”
They’re Dodgers fans, if the latest spell was any indication. With two outs and a runner in the front row, Wilmer Flores headed for home plate. He took a cursor in the heart of the area for the first strike. He fouled a four seam. The third step was another cursor, low and far. Reruns showed Flores didn’t swing. The Giants said they didn’t think Flores was going after him. Betts said he didn’t think Flores was going after him. Roberts said he “tried to sell it.”
Home plate umpire Doug Eddings called first baseman Gabe Morales. Morales closed his hand in a fist. Outside. He later declined to say if he regretted his call.
It was a disappointing end to a series that showcased baseball at its best. The Giants have won 107 regular season games. The Dodgers have won 106. San Francisco has won 10 of their games. Los Angeles won nine. The teams were separated by two points in these games. This series went the distance and almost went to extra innings. There was everything except games 6 and 7.
Scherzer, who recorded his first career save, was not interested in the fairness or unfairness of the outcome. He arrived here at the trade deadline, when the plummeting Nationals traded him and shortstop Trea Turner for prospects. They have no particular attachment to Los Angeles or aversion to San Francisco. They just want to win, because winning is fun. “I knew I just needed to run a cursor down in this situation,” Scherzer said. “I got him, and I just looked at first base and saw the call he got. That’s all.”
He’s not haunted by the same demons that defined Clayton Kershaw’s playoff career until the Dodgers won a championship last year. But Scherzer also bowed his head a few times in October. On five occasions, Scherzer faltered in the game that rebounded his team in the playoffs. Perhaps his most notable escape route in the playoffs came in Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS, against the Cubs, when he came in with a one-point lead, got two strikeouts and then went on. suffered one of the most frustrating streaks of his career: single, single, doubles, intentional walked, strikeout but ball passed, error, receiver interference, shot hit. The Nationals lost 9-8. He called it “a punch to the guts.”
Two years later, he shone as the 2019 World Series approached. He allowed two runs in five innings in a Game 1 win. Then he woke up on the morning of Game 5 with a nerve so pinched in his chest. neck that he fell off the bed and dragged himself to his feet with his left arm. His wife, Erica, had to dress him. Three days later, backed up by a cortisone shot, he knocked out five excruciating images from two sets in Game 7 and volunteered to make it a sixth. He cried as he lifted the commissioner’s trophy.
Emotions were different on Thursday. The stage was smaller. Two more series are still looming, starting with the NLCS against Atlanta, if this team wants to repeat itself. COVID-19 regulations have prevented much of the celebrations from 2019, although festivities of some sort are certainly expected at the team hotel. “I like to party,” Scherzer said. “I’m not going to lie. I like to party. Play hard, party.
But for a while, he quietly celebrated. His little daughters, Brooklyn and Kacey, continued into the infield. The seagulls darted across the outer field. And Scherzer stood alone, champagne glasses pressed over his forehead, on the mound.
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