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NLDS Game 5 Can Put Max Scherzer Back on Map as Clutch Postseason Ace

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 13, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals pitches in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Nationals Park on September 27, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)
Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

Max Scherzer has started 276 games in the major leagues. That includes 11 in the postseason, which have covered a World Series game and Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

According to him, none of these compares to his assignment in Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Thursday.

"This is probably the biggest start of my career, the biggest start of my life," the Washington Nationals ace said about his date with the Los Angeles Dodgers, via MLB.com's Anthony DiComo. "How you handle that, going out there and using the emotion of that scenario that everything's on the linelook, I'm not going to shy away from it. This is the biggest start of my career."

This might be Scherzer's lust for revenge speaking for him. The NLDS is tied 2-2 in part because he fell flat in Game 1, allowing four runs in six innings in a 4-3 loss. Surely, the former Cy Young Award winner wants redemption.

MLB @MLB

.@Max_Scherzer calls Thursday’s Game 5 the biggest of his life. And he’s ready for it: https://t.co/mJqtOqxLXH #NLDS https://t.co/PLUvMC0sqz

Still, there's no denying the other stakes at play in Game 5.

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Supposedly too battered and bruised for the task, the Nationals are trying to finish off an upset over the favored Dodgers. Including their past life as the Montreal Expos, the Nationals are also trying to go to just the second National League Championship Series in franchise history.

There's also more than just revenge at stake for Scherzer. He's been as advertised in two seasons since signing his $210 million contract, but a clutch postseason performance would be much-appreciated icing on the proverbial cake. It would also put him back on the map as a postseason ace. 

It's hard to look back and see other cases of postseason dominance while still being blinded by the ethereal October light of Madison Bumgarner. But Scherzer was darn good for the Detroit Tigers in 2012 and 2013. He made seven total appearances, including six starts, and racked up a 2.50 ERA while holding hitters to a .173 average and .572 OPS.

The best part? In 39.2 innings, he struck out 60 batters. That's a rate of 13.8 batters per nine innings. He was basically 2001 Randy Johnson for two Octobers.

Scherzer hasn't missed a beat in three regular seasons since then, racking up a 2.96 ERA and striking out 10.8 batters per nine innings.

After winning one in 2013, he was a top-five finisher in the Cy Young voting in 2014 and 2015. He may be the favorite to win it in the National League this year after posting a 2.96 ERA and leading the NL in wins (20), innings (228.1) and strikeouts (284).

However, that 2013 postseason remains the last time anyone saw Scherzer at his October best.

Before his flop in Game 1 of the NLDS, he endured a five-run flop against the Baltimore Orioles in Game 1 of the ALDS back in 2014. Go back a little further, and the fine print has a reminder that he unraveled against the Boston Red Sox late in Game 6 of the 2013 ALCS.

Scherzer could ask for worse circumstances for getting off the schneid on Thursday. He'll be at home in Nationals Park. He'll be facing a Dodgers lineup that, while formidable, is hitting just .221 with a .686 OPS in this series. He'll be opposed by some combination of Rich Hill on three days' rest and Julio Urias making his first postseason appearance.

There is one thing that could sink Scherzer: home runs. He led the NL by giving up 31 of them in the regular season. He gave up two more to Corey Seager and Justin Turner in Game 1. Going back to the end of the regular season, he's served up multiple dingers in three out of his last four starts.

Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post dug into Brooks Baseball and noticed that Scherzer's arm slot has dropped, leading to a flatter fastball. It's also been slower, as Scherzer has worked with his worst velocity all season in October.

Less life and less velocity are never good things, but they're especially bad things for Scherzer in light of how he uses his fastball. He'll work both sides of the plate, but he mostly prefers to challenge hitters in terms of vertical placement:

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

Scherzer can normally get away with this due to the sheer electricity of his heater. But without that electricity, he's vulnerable. Seager demonstrated as much when he went yard on a belt-high fastball in the first inning of Game 1.

There's no indication anything is physically wrong with Scherzer, so it may be a mere mechanical glitch that's made his arm slot drop. If he can get that ironed out, he can get back to being his usual self in Game 5.

His usual self can tear through the Dodgers lineup. Scherzer had the highest swinging-strike rate of any qualified starter this year and the third-highest strikeout rate at 11.19 per nine innings. These are the things he can do when he's combining his excellent fastball, slider and changeup with strong command.

And indeed, these are the things he had when he was tearing through the postseason in 2012 and 2013. He's mostly been that same pitcher over the last three years. He just needs to remember how to do it in October.

If he can do that, he can own the biggest game of his life.

          

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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