Max Scherzer Reignites Sleepy Dodgers with Dream Debut vs. Villain Astros

Zachary D. RymerAugust 5, 2021

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 04: Starting pitcher Max Scherzer #31 pitches in his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Houston Astros in the first inning at Dodger Stadium on August 4, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Leave it to the angriest pitcher in Major League Baseball to give the Los Angeles Dodgers the kick in the pants they so badly needed.

And against their most hated rival, no less.

So after Scherzer capped off his dazzling debut in Dodger blue on Wednesday by firing a 95 mph fastball past Houston Astros outfielder Chas McCormick, the nearly 53,000 fans packed into Dodger Stadium justifiably gave the three-time Cy Young Award winner a standing ovation and then insisted on a curtain call.

Los Angeles Dodgers @Dodgers

A curtain call from the best fans in baseball. <a href="https://t.co/Qv6YJyL4xi">pic.twitter.com/Qv6YJyL4xi</a>

“To go out there and pitch well and to have the fans ask for a curtain call for me," Scherzer told reporters after the game, "I’ve never had that happen, so that’s a cool moment and something I’ll never forget.”

Scherzer's final line: seven innings, five hits, two runs, one walk and 10 strikeouts. And for the Dodgers, a 7-5 win that pushed their record to 65-44 and kept their deficit in the National League West to 3.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants.

Of course, the Dodgers didn't plan on being behind anyone by now. Not after claiming the NL West crown in each of the previous eight seasons, and especially not after winning two-thirds of their games and ending their 32-year World Series championship drought in 2020.

But if the blockbuster trade that brought Scherzer and fellow All-Star Trea Turner over from the Washington Nationals last Friday wasn't a turning of the tide in and of itself, what unfolded at Chavez Ravine on Wednesday night sure felt like it for these Dodgers.

'Mad Max' Was as Advertised

Though nothing would have stopped the hype machine from being cranked up to maximum levels for Scherzer's first outing as a Dodger, he couldn't have drawn a more difficult assignment.

Ranking first in MLB in both batting average and on-base percentage and second in slugging percentage, the Astros offense is as good as it gets in 2021. And in spite of all the inflatable trash cans and NSFW jeers at stars Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, the Astros showed in a 3-0 win on Tuesday that they're still very much the formidable enemy that faced and vanquished the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. 

As Houston reliever Blake Taylor, who wasn't even on the 2017 team whose sign-stealing scandal stoked widespread anger that obviously still burns especially hot in Southern California, put it:

“It takes a special player to put an Astros jersey on. If you’re not willing to withstand the craziness you’re going to get every time you walk onto the field, if you can’t handle it, it’s a tough gig. We’re going to go out there and have each other’s backs.”

Scherzer, though, left no doubt on Wednesday that he's also a special player even at the age of 37 and with over 2,500 major league innings on his right arm:

With a fastball that topped out at 97 mph, sliders and changeups that bent this way and that and more than a few obscenities and animated gestures worthy of his "Mad Max" moniker, Scherzer looked every bit like his vintage self on Wednesday.

Ultimately, he notched 10 strikeouts in a game for the fourth time this season and for the 92nd time since his first Cy Young Award-winning season for the Detroit Tigers in 2013. Nobody else has more than 74 since then.

Further, Scherzer's mastery of the Astros lowered his ERA for the season to 2.75 and upped his strikeout total to 157 over 118 innings. Like his excellent final start for the Nationals on July 29, it was also further proof that the right triceps soreness that resulted in him getting scratched from a start on July 24 is nothing to worry about. 

At his age, there isn't any guarantee Scherzer will avoid further injury trouble. But if he can, he might just claim the lead in an NL Cy Young Award race that has been wide open ever since New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom was felled by a sore forearm.

The Dodgers Needed That...Oh, and Also Mookie Betts' Homers

Lest anyone forget about the Dodgers' other big star in Wednesday's victory, Mookie Betts came through with what felt like an overdue multi-homer game:

Los Angeles Dodgers @Dodgers

Two homer night? Call that Mookie magic. <a href="https://t.co/h5LPx95cvv">pic.twitter.com/h5LPx95cvv</a>

In context of being named 2018 American League MVP and his runner-up finish in last year's race for the NL MVP, it still feels like Betts is having an off year. He was slow out of the gate offensively and has recently shifted from right field back to his old haunt at second base as a means to save himself from further nagging injuries. 

Yet Betts is suddenly red-hot, having gone 17-for-31 with six home runs in eight games since July 10. At 144, his OPS+ for the season is now nearly identical to the 149 mark he had in his first season as a Dodger last year.

If anything can mute the excitement that Dodgers fans are feeling after Scherzer's outstanding opening act and Betts' escalating level of hotness, it's...well, it's really two things.

For one thing, the Dodgers still aren't on a roll even after winning three of their last four games. They're only 9-9 since the All-Star break and 12-13 in their last 25 games overall. Go back even further, and they only have the 10th-most wins in baseball since an early 13-2 run had some wondering if they could break the all-time record for wins in a season.

The degree to which the Dodgers have underperformed largely traces back to the other thing: their problems with maintaining a fully functional roster are ongoing. 

Indeed, neither the club's trade for Scherzer nor its other pre-deadline deal for Danny Duffy nor its more recent agreement with Cole Hamels would have been necessary if ascendant fireballer Dustin May hadn't undergone Tommy John surgery in May or if Clayton Kershaw, the club's resident Cy Young Award winner and MVP, hadn't gone on the injured list with forearm inflammation in July. 

As for the Trevor Bauer situation, the Dodgers' $102 million free-agent signee has been on administrative leave since July 2 after allegations of sexual assault against him came to light. Even if the 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner technically is allowed to return this season, Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times reported that a "majority" of Dodgers players don't want him back.

Other problems the Dodgers have experienced include shortstop Corey Seager's weeks-long absence with a broken hand and what's looking more and more like a lost season for 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger. He's been on the IL twice with a broken fibula and hamstring tightness, and he's hit just .168/.267/.291 when he has been healthy.

And Yet They're Still the Team to Beat

All of the above provides context for not only all the starts and stops the Dodgers have experienced since April, but also for how they've generally been rendered mortal by other good teams.

To wit, they're still under water against winning clubs even after Wednesday's victory:

Brian McTaggart @brianmctaggart

Records against teams with .500 record or better:<br><br>Astros: 43-25<br>Dodgers: 23-26

From looking at the odds, though, you'd think the Dodgers haven't sustained so much as a scratch in 2021.

According to FanGraphs, their chances of winning the NL West are more than twice as good as those of the Giants. Out of all teams, the Dodgers also still have the best chance of anyone of making the World Series (38.5 percent) and of winning it (22.9 percent).

This is hardly a prophecy that the Dodgers are indeed meant to win the NL West and then go on to their second straight Fall Classic. But sort of like how Lord of the Rings isn't defined by Frodo not wanting to destroy the one ring, these numbers are a handy reminder that a team isn't necessarily defined by its lowest points.

Simply trading for Scherzer and Turner was the Dodgers' way of saying they've just about had enough of low points. They've already gotten a big boost from one of those two, and now it's only a matter of time before the other provides yet another boost for an offense in which Betts is but one of a half-dozen well-above-average hitters.

So even though they've never been out of it at any point in 2021, "Here come the Dodgers" is an appropriate thing to say right now. Any team that would keep them from going even further had better be ready for a fight.