The last time Max Scherzer faced the San Francisco Giants in a playoff game he wasn’t yet a Cy Young Award winner. He wasn’t yet a surefire Hall of Famer. He wasn’t yet a wealthy man.
It was Game 4 of the 2012 World Series. He was a member of the vaunted Detroit Tigers’ rotation, just finding his footing as a bona fide major-league ace. He gave up three runs over 6 1/3 innings, a strong start given the context, but the Tigers lost the game and the series that night. Scherzer didn’t return to the World Series with the Tigers again. The franchise squandered two more opportunities with a loaded roster before he left for Washington.
“Our guys in Detroit there in 2012, 2013, 2014, to not be able to punch through and get a ring, we all look back and really believe that, ‘Man, we had the teams to do it,’” Scherzer said Sunday. “We can’t believe that we didn’t. We had one shot at it.”
Nine years and an historic prime later, Scherzer is back on another World Series favorite seeking to avoid squandering a prime chance to win a championship at the hands of the Giants. They will stand in his way again Monday night in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers acquired Scherzer at the July 30 trade deadline for these games. They needed another frontline starter for October once they knew Trevor Bauer wasn’t going to return after being accused of sexual assault. Scherzer, an impending free agent, could end up being the difference in the Dodgers winning back-to-back World Series titles for the first time in franchise history as a four-month rental.
“We made this acquisition for him to be an ace, a stopper,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “When he takes the baseball, you expect to win and for him to prevent runs.”
There wasn’t a better ace in the majors than Scherzer in his first nine starts as a Dodger. The right-hander gave up six runs (five earned) over 58 innings during the stretch, good for an 0.78 ERA. He compiled 79 strikeouts to seven walks. The Dodgers won all nine games.
The Dodgers have won his last three starts, too, but not because Scherzer was dominant.
He faltered Sept. 23 against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field and hasn’t yet rebounded. He surrendered 11 runs (10 earned) in his final two regular season outings before giving up one run across just 4 1/3 innings in the Dodgers’ wild-card game win over the St. Louis Cardinals last Wednesday.
It was his shortest postseason start since 2011, but he emerged confident. After the game, he said he found a rhythm by the fourth inning.
“He started executing his pitches,” Dodgers catcher Will Smith said. “There was some crispness to it and, yeah, just that fine little line that he was able to take a little step forward.”
On Sunday, Scherzer said he’s worked to clean up his mechanics during his prep work.
“I think we identified something in my lower half that I can grab onto,” Scherzer said. “Threw a bullpen with it, felt pretty good, so felt pretty good.”
While Scherzer is still finding his footing in Los Angeles, he’ll oppose a familiar face around these parts. A year after pitching two innings in the Dodgers’ championship-clinching win, Alex Wood will attempt to shut down an offense that exploded for nine runs in Game 2 on Saturday.
Wood, 30, made an All-Star team and pitched to a 3.54 ERA over five seasons in two stints as a Dodger before signing a one-year deal to reunite with Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. He then posted a 3.83 ERA in 26 starts for the Giants this season, which was interrupted by a lengthy bout with COVID-19.
The Dodgers will counter the left-hander with a lineup change from Game 2. Albert Pujols, not Cody Bellinger, will start at first base. Chris Taylor will remain in center field, leaving Bellinger, a left-handed hitter, to start the game on the bench.
“More the mindset of giving us the best chance to get a lead,” Roberts said, “and we can pivot out of some things.”
Wood has already started three games against the Dodgers this year, yielding nine runs in 17 innings. Scherzer, new to the National League West, faced the Giants just once in 2021, when he was still a National. He left that game, on June 11, after six pitches because of a groin injury. The familiarity scales, as a result, may tip in the Dodgers offense’s favor.
The Giants’ roster has a combined .134 batting average and .496 OPS in their careers against Scherzer in the regular season. And yet the playoffs are another matter. Never had these two celebrated rivals met in the postseason until this meeting.
The Giants will have two holdovers from Game 4 of the 2012 World Series in their lineup Monday: catcher Buster Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford. Posey, who homered in Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday, clubbed a two-run home run off Scherzer in the meeting. Crawford, an NL MVP candidate this season, went one for three.
Brandon Belt, a major component in the Giants’ 107-win season, was also in that lineup, but he’s out of the NLDS because of a fractured thumb he suffered in the regular season’s final week.
Scherzer shrugged off that experience, describing that clash as ancient in the baseball universe. He’s a different pitcher on a different team on a different stage. But the Giants are in the way again.
“I’m sure they’re gonna be prepared as heck to face me,” Scherzer said. “It’ll be a heck of a challenge to go up against them.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.