June 21, 2024

PHOENIX — BEFORE GAME 3 of the American League Championship Series, former President George W. Bush roamed around the Texas Rangers‘ clubhouse shaking hands and talking ball. After hobnobbing for a bit, Bush started to meander toward the locker of that day’s starting pitcher.

Max Scherzer sat in his chair, staring straight ahead, headphones covering his ears. Sixteen years into his Hall of Fame career, Scherzer’s arm no longer produces the explosive pitches that won him three Cy Young Awards. His intensity, though, has suffered no such atrophy. If anything, it has grown to compensate for what he might lack physically.

On the days that he starts, Scherzer does not exist as much as he smolders.

“Everyone knows when he has headphones on, you don’t mess with Max,” Rangers outfielder Travis Jankowski said.

Bush, who owned a piece of the Rangers before becoming president of the United States, understands the dynamics of a clubhouse and how to properly navigate it. Jankowski watched him begin to approach Scherzer, then pause.

“He goes up to him,” Jankowski said, “looks at him … and he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m going to pass on this one.’ He knows that’s Max Scherzer about to pitch a playoff game.”

Tonight, for the 30th time, Max Scherzer will pitch a playoff game. Following a split in Texas, Scherzer will start Game 3 of the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team that drafted him. In past World Series tied after two, the team that won Game 3 captured a championship 41 of 60 times.

That Scherzer finds himself here again, at 39 years old, is not entirely surprising. When Texas acquired Scherzer from the New York Mets in a late-July trade, general manager Chris Young saw him as a source of intensity and focus in the clubhouse. When Scherzer talks, people listen. When he leads, they follow. And when he pitches, they relish it — even if it means the former president doesn’t get to exchange pleasantries.

“Usually when you see George Bush, you stop and say hi,” Scherzer said. “But I had my headphones on. I’m locked in. We’ll say hi some other time.”

SCHERZER REMEMBERS ALMOST everything about his World Series debut 11 years ago, from the temperature in Detroit that night (27 degrees) to the inning in which Buster Posey hit a go-ahead home run off him (sixth). Even though his Detroit Tigers got swept by the San Francisco Giants, he looks back on that series almost wistfully. So much has happened since then: the Cy Youngs and megacontracts and getting married and having four kids and winning a World Series. Everything was different, including the game.

“I remember when we let starters go into the seventh inning,” Scherzer said.

That was 31,976 regular-season pitches ago. In the time since, Scherzer has started more games (315), thrown more innings (2,030) and struck out more batters (2,538) than anyone. Only Clayton Kershaw and Jacob deGrom have better ERAs in that decade-plus than Scherzer’s 2.86.

If Scherzer sounds like an old head talking about the way things were, it’s because he is. When Scherzer comes out to the mound at home, it’s no accident he warms up to a Ludacris song called “Last of a Dying Breed.”

“He’s arguably the greatest pitcher of all time — he’s in that conversation,” Rangers catcher Austin Hedges said. “You can argue that he is it, and there’s a reason, and it’s obvious: the mental wherewithal to respond to things, to the adjustments that he’s made from being a young pitcher to a veteran pitcher to an older pitcher. Guys don’t just do what he is capable of doing at 39 years old with that many miles on his arm and with all the accolades he has. Why are you even hungry? And he’s the hungriest guy here.”

Hunger carried Scherzer to this World Series. After he threw 5⅓ shutout innings on Sept. 12, his shoulder started barking. Doctors diagnosed a muscle strain. The Rangers thought he would miss the remainder of the season, even if they did make a deep playoff run.

“It was pretty gut-wrenching,” Hedges said. “Then the next day you would’ve thought it’s just his turn to pitch. He’s out there doing every single little thing he can to rehab to get himself [ready] and to also not change anything where a guy is like, ‘Oh, Max isn’t playing now, he’s just off doing his own thing?’ He’s like, ‘OK, what’s the earliest I can come back? Is it the ALCS? Then I’ll do everything I can to get there.’ And he did it. He did it, and it’s for the boys.”

Day after day, Hedges saw Scherzer in the trainers’ room doing arm care and in the weight room lifting and on the field running from foul pole to foul pole, all with the ALCS in mind. When it arrived, he was ready. In his first start against Houston, he threw four innings and allowed five runs. In his second, Scherzer drew the Game 7 start, and while manager Bruce Bochy’s quick hook limited him to 2⅔ innings in which he allowed a pair of runs, Scherzer exited the game saying his arm felt good and expecting to go deeper in his next opportunity.

That comes now. And two days after the Diamondbacks pounded 16 hits and pummeled the Rangers 9-1 in Game 2, Scherzer needs to summon his vintage self and generate swings and misses. The Diamondbacks whiffed on just eight of the 69 swings they took during Game 2. Even with Texas’ elite defense, Arizona’s propensity to put the ball in play creates problems.

The question Scherzer must answer is: Can he still be that pitcher? The Max Scherzer of 2011 undoubtedly was. Even in his last World Series, which he won with the Washington Nationals in 2019, Scherzer mounted up. A neck injury canceled his scheduled Game 5 start, and Scherzer wasn’t sure until the day of Game 7 whether he could pitch. He did, for five strong innings, with a fastball that topped out at 98.2 mph and sat at 95.6 mph, nearly 2 mph better than his season average.

“I had a bigger arm. I was able to really throw the ball by people, so I relied on that,” Scherzer said. “I fed off the moment to throw 98, 99 as much as I could because I could get the ball by guys. I don’t have that capability quite at this age anymore, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get guys out. I just have to get guys out in a different way and I’ve got to pitch a little bit more — and I feel like I’m able to do that and understand the moment a little bit better because of my experience.”

Banking on experience is the sort of rhetoric aging pitchers offer, though to suggest Scherzer is now some soft tosser would be a misread. On the list of less than two dozen Hall of Famers who have thrown 150-plus innings at age 39 or older, only Nolan Ryan carried a fastball with the same juice as Scherzer’s to the cusp of his 40s. In 152⅔ innings this season, he still struck out 174 batters with a fastball that averaged 93.7 mph — one-tenth of a mile per hour below his career average. With age has come wisdom, the ability to pitch more than throw, the necessity to be smarter than the person standing 60 feet, 6 inches away in the batter’s box.

“For me, these moments are kind of starting to slow down a little bit,” Scherzer said. “I think when you’re younger you really feel the pressure more, your mind’s racing, the game’s speeding up on you, and a lot of times that’s good and you use that to your advantage. I’ve been in every situation that you can dream up. Now when I’m in these moments, I’m able to slow the game down a little bit more. I’m able to stay within myself a little bit better, and I don’t have to try to … be a hero and try to throw the ball by you.”

DANE DUNNING’S HEART skipped a beat. He was in the tunnel leading into the Rangers’ dugout when he heard a familiar voice filled with bile.

“Don’t touch it!” Max Scherzer yelled.

Dunning hadn’t touched anything. The 28-year-old right-hander was confused. He looked around and saw Scherzer standing by a table, where there were more than half a dozen Rangers hats. Scherzer is an inveterate sweater on the mound, so he uses a fresh hat every inning, and a Rangers bat boy had made the mistake of moving the hat with the PitchCom device inserted. He learned the hard way what President Bush understood: On the day Scherzer starts, leave the man — and his stuff — alone.

“I try to stay out of his way,” Dunning said. “I try not to make eye contact.”

In the three months since Scherzer joined the Rangers, his new teammates have adjusted to his whims. On the four days when he doesn’t pitch, he’s the consummate teammate, and on the day he does, he’s the ultimate competitor. And if that competitiveness keeps people twitchy, well, the Rangers see that more as a feature than a bug.

This is a team on a mission to win its first championship since the franchise’s inception in 1961. And if everyone recognizes Scherzer’s reputation and achievements might exceed what his body is now capable of delivering, so be it. His role in this clubhouse extends far beyond the days he pitches.

“He’s on edge more,” Jankowski said. “It’s not nervous energy, it’s just kind of like, I’m going to go and attack — an aggressive mentality. ‘This is my game. This is what I do. I’m going to go nine scoreless innings of no-hit baseball. Here we go.’

“We don’t have that edge guy. Corey [Seager] is very stone-faced, nonemotional, an incredible player. Marcus [Semien]. Same with [Jacob] deGrom. But when you bring that in, guys can feed off that.”

Better than any of his teammates, Scherzer knows the postseason and how trying it can be. In those previous 29 postseason games — 24 starts — his teams are 14-15. He has succeeded. He has failed. And now he’s at the point where only rings matter. He’s got one year left on his contract. He’s got a finite amount of pitches in his right arm. The rarity of a World Series run forces him to appreciate how fortunate this month — and his whole career — has been.

“What you play the game for is to be a championship-type player, to be on a team that can win the whole thing,” Scherzer said. “For me to still be here at this day — what you dream of is to be in this position to be able to go out there and play to win the whole freaking thing.”

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