By now you are aware that Dodgers ace Max Scherzer is a maniac. But there are levels: There’s “first inning of a mid-May start against the Marlins Max” (relatively mild but still frightening), and there’s “ninth inning of a late-season complete game Max” (a genuinely dangerous time to be his manager), and there’s “working out of a jam in a tight playoff game Max” (smoke visibly emitting from nose and mouth). Prior to the ninth inning of Thursday night’s NLDS Game 5 against the Giants, no one had ever seen “collecting a save in a one-run playoff clincher against a division rival Max.” Buddy, you could fry an egg on this Max’s shoulders.
It’s not clear that anyone but Scherzer was all that committed to getting him into this game. Manager Dave Roberts indicated Wednesday that Scherzer would be unavailable for the clincher and called it “highly unlikely” he’d change his mind, because Scherzer had started and thrown 110 pitches across seven innings as the tough-luck loser of Game 3, and because he’d be expected to turn around and start again for the Dodgers, should they advance, on Saturday in Game 1 of the NLCS. Roberts never officially announced a change in Scherzer’s availability for Thursday, but his late move to use Corey Knebel as an opener in Game 5 obviously required a rethinking of matters. Roberts ultimately used two of his most important bullpen arms—flamethrower Brusdar Graterol worked a choppy but scoreless second—before eventually inserting scheduled starter Julio Urías for a couple turns through the Giants lineup. Urías pitched four innings of one-run ball, but in what was at the time a somewhat curious call was pulled for Blake Treinen in the seventh. The Dodgers have a great bullpen, but you do not generally want to be using your fifth reliever to close out a must-win game against the best regular-season team in baseball. So they did not.
According to ESPN, Scherzer was out on the field warming up three hours before game time, and eventually “pronounced himself ready” to take the mound. Scherzer was spotted marching from the dugout to the bullpen during the fourth inning Thursday night, with the score locked at zeroes. Was he sent down there to get ready? No, of course not. Instead, he decided he wanted “to get comfortable, feel what it was like, be with the boys,” but knew in his gut, “somehow and some way, the game was going to get to me.”
Take a moment to appreciate the position Roberts was now in, with Scherzer having agitated to play, having pronounced himself fit to play, having warmed up to play, and having made his way of his own volition down to the bullpen, in order to be ready to play. On the one hand, Roberts was technically at a safer distance to hold firm to his pronouncement of Scherzer’s unavailability; on the other, the scariest moment of his entire life would be watching Scherzer march back across that outfield grass, like the monster from It Follows, after learning his manager was keeping him from taking the mound in a do-or-die game. Imagine the face of Max Scherzer in that moment. Terrifying.
Scherzer first started throwing out in the bullpen with Urías in a tight spot in the sixth, having given up a huge leadoff dinger to Darin Ruf and then allowing a two-out single to Kris Bryant. But it was during the top of the ninth, after Cody Bellinger singled home Justin Turner to give L.A. the lead, that Scherzer started warming up in earnest, and it became clear that he would come on for the save.
Scherzer’s inning of work was electric. He threw 11 of 13 pitches for strikes, mowed down a frozen LaMonte Wade Jr. with a nasty backdoor slider, and had Wilmer Flores in deep shit with two outs before an extremely suspect ruling from first-base umpire Gabe Morales on what sure looked like a checked swing ended the game on a somewhat sour note. Dodgers fans will say Flores was a dead man walking, down 0–2 to a dialed-in Scherzer with hellfire burning in his eye sockets, and perhaps just for narrative satisfaction I think I prefer to agree with them. Or, at any rate, I like to think that this moment of blind euphoria for the most intense human being in the universe was destined, and Morales’s bad call just expedited things:
This was Scherzer’s first career save, and made him the oldest player to record a save in a winner-take-all game in the history of the stat. Did he celebrate by yanking his shirt off, soaking himself in champagne, and then scampering around on the field like a sugar-drunk child? Goddammit, you know perfectly well that he did.