HOUSTON -- Seventy-two hours ago Nationals ace Max Scherzer was so debilitated by a neck issue that he couldn't properly sit down during a press conference at Nationals Park. . It was far from certain he would be able to start Game 7 of the World Series.
"I was in a bad spot a couple days ago when I couldn't lift my elbow above my shoulder," Scherzer said.
His wife, Erica, told him: "Don't worry. Stras will pitch Game 6, you'll pitch Game 7."
Fast forward to Wednesday night, and Scherzer was slinging 97 mph fastballs and dancing in and out of danger in Game 7. Astros swung and missed only twice at his first 55 pitches, and the pitcher with the fifth highest strikeout rate in baseball history did not record his first strikeout until his 17th batter faced.. Clearly though, Scherzer was not his typically dominant self. He had good velocity, but his location was poor, and his stuff didn't have the same life. The
"Max is a bulldog," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "His location wasn't as crisp as he wanted it to be. He fought through some unbelievable innings and he kept us in the ball game. That's all we can ask from Max."
The second inning was a strong indication Scherzer was not right. Yuli Gurriel hammered a hanging slider into the Crawford Boxes for a solo homer -- it wasn't an awful pitch, but it definitely wasn't where Scherzer wanted it -- and it was the first of five balls the Astros put in play at 100+ mph in the inning. Here are Scherzer's starts with the most 100 mph batted balls allowed this season:
- April 7 vs. Mets: 7
- World Series Game 7 second inning: 5
- August 8 vs. Orioles: 5
- May 1 vs. Cardinals: 5
- April 26 vs. Padres: 5
Amazingly, the Gurriel home run was the only run Scherzer allowed through four innings. Robinson Chirinos gifted the Nationals an out with a bunt pop-up in the second inning -- why he was bunting after a homer and two loud singles to start the inning, I'll never understand -- and the Astros stranded two runners on base in the second, third, and fourth innings. Opportunities wasted.
"We put a lot of heat on him. We made him work. He had almost 20 pitches an inning. We had guys on base. We hit the ball hard. We didn't chase that much," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Almost similar to how we were in Game 1 against him where we just made him earn every out that he got."
Through those first four innings, it felt like one of two things would happen. Either the Astros would eventually regret wasting all those chances or Scherzer's bend but don't break act would backfire. It backfired in the fifth inning. With two on and two outs (again), Carlos Correa yanked a slider passed Anthony Rendon at third base to drive in a run for a 2-0 lead.
Look where catcher Yan Gomes wanted the pitch and where Scherzer's two-strike slider wound up. He missed his spot terribly:
That was Scherzer all night. The stuff was firm enough but the location was terrible. Only 58 of his 103 pitches were strikes -- the 45 balls were a season high -- and his streak of starts with more strikeouts than walks was snapped at 257. That was the longest such streak in baseball during the live ball era (since 1920), according to STATS.
Scherzer either missed way out of the zone for easy takes or over the plate for loud contact. That's bound to happen a few times even to the best pitchers. In Game 7, it was every at-bat for Scherzer. It's a minor miracle he got through five innings with only two innings allowed. That qualifies as a gutsy performance. As gutsy as it gets, really.
"He had 102 pitches. He said, 'Hey, I'll give you another inning if you need me,'" Martinez said. "I said, 'Max, you did a great job, you kept us in the ball game. We'll get this, we'll figure it out. We're going to win this game.'"
The offense, as well as the bullpen, came through. The Nationals scored three runs in the seventh inning to turn the 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead, and they eventually added three insurance runs as well.. They helped turn Scherzer's outing into a feel-good story rather than a disappointing end to the season.
It seemed Martinez was sticking with his starter a little too long in the early innings, but it worked out as hoped. Scherzer battled valiantly without his best command and didn't allow things to spiral out of control. In the end, Scherzer turned into a heroic effort just three days after not being able to turn his head, and now he's a World Series champion.
"That's our motto: stay in the fight. We always stay in the fight," Scherzer said. "Even when I got grinded apart by them -- they did an unbelievable job against me -- we were down two-nothing, we stayed in that fight, and our offense came through and scored big."