When the drama was finally over, when his team was on the field at Dodger Stadium celebrating its 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, Max Scherzer walked over near the seats behind home plate.
He blew a kiss to his wife. He exchanged pleasantries with Juan Soto, his former teammate on the Washington Nationals. He saluted Kevin Long, the Nationals hitting coach.
He didn’t look like the pitcher who snarled when he was removed from the game earlier in the night, the one who had just made his shortest postseason start in a decade.
“We won the game,” Scherzer said. “That’s all that matters.”
Two years after he won a World Series with the Nationals, Scherzer was heading back to the NL Division Series to help the Dodgers defend the championship they claimed last October.
The best-of-five series with the San Francisco Giants opens Friday at Oracle Park.
The victory was confirmation of some of the Dodgers’ virtues. They can deliver a decisive blow in critical moments, as Chris Taylor did when he won the game with a walk-off, two-run home run. They have a dependable bullpen, as was evidenced by the 4 2/3 scoreless innings in which their relievers blanked the Cardinals.
But the triumph also raised a disconcerting question: Is their rotation as good as they think it is?
The most dependable pitcher on the 106-win team, Scherzer lasted only 4 1/3 innings in the wild-card game. Because he pitched Wednesday night, he will be available to start only once in the NLDS — in Game 3 on Monday.
Game 1 starter Walker Buehler, who was excluded from the team’s wild-card roster, had his Cy Young Award candidacy implode over an inconsistent September.
Game 2 starter Julio Urías won a league-high 20 games but experienced a drop in velocity in recent starts.
“This is postseason baseball,” Scherzer said. “Anything can happen.”
Like a future Hall of Famer elevating his pitch count to where the manager came to get him in the fifth inning of a game that was tied 1-1.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of swing and miss with Max tonight,” Dave Roberts said.
The Cardinals had men on first and second with one out, and Nolan Arenado at the plate. Joe Kelly was warming up in the Dodgers bullpen.
Roberts strode from the bench to the mound, where he extended his right hand in Scherzer’s direction. Instead of the ball, Scherzer offered him a handshake.
“I was good,” Scherzer said in a postgame interview with TBS, “but he wanted Joe.”
His gaze lowered, Scherzer retreated to the Dodgers dugout as the home crowd serenaded him with a charitably warm applause. The last time Scherzer departed a postseason game this early was when he was a 27-year-old on the Detroit Tigers.
“We’re going to lean on Max the rest of the postseason, but I just felt at that moment in time, it was the right decision,” Roberts said. “I would never expect him to be happy, but that was my call.”
And it was the right one.
This was no aberration. Over his last two regular-season starts, Scherzer was charged with a combined 11 runs (10 earned) in 101/3 innings.
Nor was this a case in which Scherzer was prematurely removed by a manager working in concert with an analytically inclined front office. Scherzer had already thrown 94 pitches. He wasn’t sharp. He was due up second in the bottom half of the inning.
The move worked.
Kelly forced Arenado to ground into a forceout and struck out Dylan Carlson to keep the score deadlocked. The Dodgers went on to win the game on a walk-off, two-run home run by Chris Taylor.
To his credit, Scherzer emerged from a brutal first inning with his team down by only a run. Scherzer was undone by the same control problems that plagued him over his last two regular-season starts.
The game started with Scherzer giving up a leadoff single to Tommy Edman, who promptly stole second base. Scherzer walked Paul Goldschmidt, then baited an impatient Tyler O’Neill to pop up in foul territory down the right-field line. The out was productive, as Edman tagged up and advanced to third base, which allowed him to score when Scherzer uncorked a wild pitch to Arenado.
Scherzer threw 19 pitches in that first inning. His pitch count was at 43 after two innings, 60 after three and 78 after four.
He wasn’t at his best. But he didn’t have to be. The bullpen made sure of that. Taylor made sure of it.
With the win, the Dodgers gave him another opportunity to be Max Scherzer. And if Scherzer can be that, if he can re-create his past glories, he can give them a chance to win another World Series.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.