WASHINGTON D.C. — It’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Nationals win the World Series without Max Scherzer making an impact in one of these final three games. But for Game 5, at least, severe neck spams will keep the Nationals ace off the mound.
We’ve seen the unexpected just about every night in this World Series, in which the road team has won each of the first four games. So perhaps we should have expected something weird for Game 5. But few things could be as chaotic as Scherzer getting scratched.
“I’m as disappointed as I possibly can be not to be able to pitch tonight. It’s Game 5 of the World Series,” Scherzer said. “I’ve pitched through so much crap in my career that would be easy to pitch through at this point, but this is literally impossible to do anything with.”
Instead of Scherzer (who pitched one day after breaking his nose during batting practice in June and struck out 10 in seven scoreless innings), the Nationals will send Joe Ross to the mound against Gerrit Cole in the biggest game of the season for either team.
“For Max to miss a game, especially a significant game like this, he’s got to be really hurting,” manager Dave Martinez said Sunday.
To deny Scherzer a chance to pitch on a major league mound is to risk significant bodily harm. He’s one of the most intense players in the majors, as Martinez saw in June when he tried to make a pitching change.
“He’s really upset about it,” Martinez said Sunday. “I’ve never seen Max this quiet. He’s very quiet.”
Scherzer said he had neck spasms earlier in the week, but felt fine after getting treatment from Nationals trainers on Saturday, and even played catch before Game 4. But when he woke up Sunday, he couldn’t even dress himself. Scherzer said during a pregame press conference that he couldn’t lift his arm.
“It’s just the sensory that’s pinching up the nerve in the neck and the trap, the whole muscles that surround your neck are just completely locked up in spasm,” he explained. “So for me it became impossible just to do any menial task whatsoever today.”
Scherzer has been an All-Star in each of the last seven seasons, and his 1,485⅓ innings during that time is the most in baseball. The only pitcher within 100 innings of Scherzer over the last seven years is Justin Verlander, Scherzer’s teammate for five years in Detroit and Houston’s scheduled Game 6 starter.
“I mean, it’s got to be pretty bad. I don’t know. Obviously it’s all speculation on my end,” Verlander said Sunday. “But I know that he was a competitor, always wanted to take the ball. Given the situation, I’m assuming it’s not good.”
That’s not to say Scherzer is immune to injuries. He missed two starts after the All-Star break with a mild back strain, then missed four weeks in July and August with a rhomboid strain, just below the trapezius and neck muscles where Scherzer’s spasms are located. Those injuries limited Scherzer to 27 starts during the regular season, snapping a 10-year streak of at least 30 starts, and a six-year streak of at least 200 innings pitched.
Scherzer missed 10 days on the injured list with neck inflammation in 2017, the third of his three Cy Young award seasons. But this is much worse.
For his spasms, Scherzer received a cortisone injection that team doctors told him will take 48 hours to kick in. With Stephen Strasburg lined up to pitch Game 6, the Nationals’ best-case scenario is for Scherzer to recover in time to pitch Game 7 on Wednesday, if there is one.
“This is just a little thing that turned into a big thing that turned into a giant thing,” Scherzer said.
Scherzer’s scratch obviously means a huge drop-off on the mound for the Nationals, who go from one of the best pitchers in baseball to Ross, who has battled injuries and posted an ERA over 5.00 in each of his last three seasons. Ross pitched two scoreless innings in the Nationals’ Game 3 loss on Friday. Martinez said he hopes to get 75-80 pitches out of Ross, whose last start was on Sept. 29, four weeks ago.
Washington will also likely be aggressive with their two most reliable relievers, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, neither of whom have pitched since closing out Game 1.
The Nationals are 4-0 in Scherzer’s starts this postseason, and 5-0 in games started by Strasburg. They won the first two games of the series in Houston, and now might need to win the last two to save their title hopes.