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It’s On Max Scherzer, Again

Max Scherzer warms up
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Max Scherzer's season has been one of alternating triumphs and setbacks. Had it not been for a bushel of home runs by his Rangers teammates, and a couple of nerve-fraying outs obtained by José Leclerc, it would have ended on a very low note. But since Texas has forced a Game 7 in the ALCS against Houston on Monday night, Scherzer will take the mound at least one more time in 2023, looking to help deliver a win for the first time in over a month.

The 39-year-old heterochromatic righty is still an awesome pitcher when he's on, with a competitive drive that defines him as much as a fastball that can bite your head off. A glance at his numbers this year shows you an above-average starter, if no longer a Cy Young candidate, who really turned it on in the second half of the year. But the road's been bumpier than his 1.120 WHIP and a 114 ERA+ might imply. First off, Scherzer had to toil for the Mets. Perhaps the less said there, the better, but everything that could go wrong did go wrong for a team that finished with 26 fewer wins than they earned the previous season even after making a couple of splashy new adds. Scherzer wasn't the worst of that bunch, but he wasn't exactly a bright spot either.

New York freed him at the end of July. With the Rangers he found a tad more consistency, and when, in his third start, he threw seven one-hit shutout innings with 11 Ks, he looked like the exact kind of gem that the then–AL West leaders could count on in a deep playoff run. But his team went 19-24 from that moment on and ended the regular season as a bit of a wild card afterthought. Scherzer's own year appeared to conclude early with an upper arm strain suffered in mid-September.

And then the Rangers got hot. They swept away the Rays and embarrassed the Orioles, setting themselves up for what has become a seven-game, rivalry-making slugfest with the Astros. Thanks to some quick rehab, Scherzer was able to make his return in Game 3 of the ALCS, with his team holding a 2-0 lead. Their momentum evaporated when a clearly wonky Scherzer couldn't make his pitches and allowed a bunch of early baserunners, eventually leaving after four innings with his team trailing 5-0.

"I don't know exactly how I'll be used from here on out," Scherzer said in the postgame. But that loss has not shaken his manager's faith in his abilities. In the most important game of the Rangers' season, Scherzer is returning to a spot reminiscent of his career's greatest triumph—a Game 7, at less than 100 percent, on the road, facing Houston. But he's also returning to stare down the lineup that has already made a mockery of him—not just last week but last month, too, when they tagged him with seven earned in three innings in his worst start as a Ranger. For the 16-year vet of 19 playoff series, winner-take-all games are as familiar as they can be for anyone. But that doesn't make this routine, and it doesn't make the Rangers favorites. Texas is betting that Scherzer's experience will trump his recent history, physical recovery, and the power of the Astros' offense.

“I mean, it’s Max Scherzer,” said his catcher, Jonah Heim, “so you’re going to expect greatness whenever he steps on the mound. We’re going to draw up a good game plan. I know he’s going to come ready.”

The leash will be short—even in a best-case scenario I wouldn't expect to see him in the sixth—but if Astros starter Cristian Javier continues to bring the juice, the Rangers' season could hang on what Scherzer can deliver in just a few huge innings. That's why they traded for him.

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