Maximum Scherzer

New Dodger addition dominates Astros in debut and changes complexion of NL West race

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 04: Max Scherzer gets a curtain call after pitching seven innings in his Dodger debut at Dodger Stadium. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images).

One week ago, I took my dog on a long walk. It was the morning of the trade deadline. I knew it was going to be a hectic work day, and if George doesn’t get exercise he will tear up the house.

While the world waited to see where stars like Max Scherzer and Kris Bryant would be traded, George and I walked to Cofax, a Dodger themed coffee shop with the best breakfast burritos in Los Angeles.

This is the first thing we saw:

This is what Max Scherzer looks like:

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 27: Max Scherzer looks on against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 27, 2021 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images).

It felt like a heterochromia omen.

Then a few hours later Scherzer was going to the Padres. Some said it was close. Some said it was being finalized. Dodger fans reached for barf buckets. Max Scherzer has been one of the finest pitchers of his generation for the better part of a decade. The Dodgers have to hold off the upstart Padres (and first place Giants) to win the NL West. If the season ended today they’d have to play San Diego in a sudden death wild card game. If Scherzer were on that team there’s no doubt he would get the ball in that scenario.

But that San Diego trade was never that close, after all. Because of his veteran status, Scherzer gets to approve any trade. He told reporters during his introductory zoom press conference with the Dodgers that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo never called him and asked for permission to trade him to the Padres. A few hours later, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that the Dodgers were close to acquiring not only Max Scherzer from the Nationals but also all-star shortstop Trea Turner. ( I’ll save analysis of the incredible Turner addition for another newsletter).

Scherzer had a long history with Rizzo. It was Rizzo who ran the scouting department for the Arizona Diamondbacks back in 2006 when the DBacks took Scherzer with the 11th pick in draft, four slots behind Clayton Kershaw. Scherzer and Kershaw have been the best picks of that draft by far. Scherzer, 37, owns three Cy Youngs and a World Series ring. He’s pitched two no-hitters. Kershaw, 33, has earned three Cy Youngs, an MVP award, and his own World Series ring. He’s thrown one no-hitter.

Their journeys to this moment have been radically different. Kershaw has played for only one organization. This is Scherzer’s fourth team. Perhaps the Diamondbacks would not have the worst record in baseball had they kept him. His time with the Diamondbacks was marred from the beginning by concerns over his health. Even before they drafted him, Mike Rizzo says he heard industry-wide concerns about Scherzer’s delivery: his wind-up in college was so violent during his freshman year at Missouri that his cap would often fly off. “What we heard, and what we read after we drafted him, was 'Overdraft. You drafted a reliever at best. And he probably breaks down,'" Rizzo told Ken Rosenthal in 2017.

I was curious why the Diamondbacks ever let Scherzer go, so I texted my friend Nick Piecoro, who has covered the team for the Arizona Republic for the last fifteen seasons. He sent me an article he wrote in 2015 that breaks it all down. Rizzo had taken Scherzer in the first round because of the maniacal intensity with which he attacks hitters. They had even called him Mad Max in the draft room, a nickname that stuck. But Arizona’s medical staff eventually came to the conclusion that Scherzer would not remain healthy. In 2009—after just one year on the big league squad—the Diamondbacks traded him to Detroit for a return package that included Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson.

Scherzer helped lead Detroit to the World Series in 2012. He won his first Cy Young Award in 2013. The Diamondbacks would love to have that trade back.

A couple years later, Rizzo got his chance for a mulligan. As GM of the Nationals, he signed Scherzer to a seven year deal worth $210 million before the 2015 season. In 1229 innings pitched for the Nationals Scherzer posted a 2.80 ERA. He struck out 1610. His status as a first ballot Hall of Famer was cemented when he won two more Cy Young Awards, fired two no-hitters, and helped capture the Nationals first ever World Series championship.

It’s hard to remember if the Dodgers have ever added a player of his caliber still in his prime at the trading deadline. Manny Ramirez carried the Dodgers to the NLCS after he was added in the summer of 2008. He was one of the best hitters in the league in his day, but he’s not a Hall of Famer. Had the Dodgers traded for Justin. Verlander instead of Yu Darvish at the 2017 deadline that deal would be a better comp. (The Dodgers might also have won another title).

On Wednesday night, Scherzer took the field at Dodger Stadium pitching for the home team for the first time in his career at a moment when the Dodgers badly needed him to shine. The talented team has been maddening in its inconsistency, playing .500 ball for weeks. A big part of their frustrating play has to do with their decimated starting rotation. What was supposed to be their strength has turned into a nightmare as the season has progressed. Dustin May tore his UCL in April and underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. Kershaw has been injured for the last month. Tony Gonsolin has battled a shoulder injury that has derailed his control all season. Offseason acquisition Trevor Bauer has been out since June while under investigation for sexual assault.

Scherzer ran out to the mound wearing #31, Mike Piazza’s old number. He struck out the hated Astros’ second baseman Jose Altuve to begin the game, cementing his status as a Dodger legend after just one batter. He spent the next two hours in complete control, dotting his fastball on the corners of the strike zone and mixing in his nasty curveball more than usual.

In seven dominant innings Scherzer gave up two runs and struck out ten. He left to a standing ovation from the largest crowd to attend a major league baseball game this year, and even obliged a curtain call after Kershaw nudged him back onto the field. He was so hyped after he left the game that he spend the next two innings leaning over the dugout railing, unable or unwilling to sit down.

The Dodgers still have a ways to go before they resemble the Death Star we all thought they would become before this season began. They still need a fifth starter until Kershaw returns. They need to figure out what to do with the struggling Cody Bellinger. But for one night at the Ravine, all was well. Two months from October, Dodger fans could picture Scherzer on the mound leading the team to a must-win victory on the game’s biggest stage.

For one night, they played like the reigning world champions they are.