HOUSTON — In 2019, the Washington Nationals won the first two World Series games in Houston and then lost all three at home. A wild-card winner, the Nationals were a heavy underdog, a deep run possible only because of incredible starting pitching. The Nats returned to Minute Maid Park down 3-2. They won Game 6. And then, for Game 7, a beat-up Max Scherzer — who had been sidelined with a neck injury rendering him unable to move his neck days before — took the mound. Somehow, Scherzer gutted through five innings, holding the Astros to two runs as the Nationals upended Houston 6-2 to win it all.
This year, the Texas Rangers won the first two ALCS games in Houston and then lost all three games in Arlington. A wild-card winner, the Rangers are the lower seed against their cross-state rival. The Rangers returned to Minute Maid Park down 3-2. In Sunday’s Game 6, they impressively churned out a 9-2 win.
“Here he is, in Game 7, in this building,” Rangers infielder Marcus Semien said of Scherzer, whom he watched help the Nationals win the World Series four years ago.
Will Scherzer post a similarly gutty effort? Will his slider, which he failed to command at times in Wednesday’s Game 3 loss, be an easy pitch for the Astros to feast on? No matter what happens, it’s shaping up to be October drama at its finest, the kind of coincidence that doesn’t escape Scherzer and still haunts the Astros.
“There it is,” Scherzer told me earlier this series, pointing to Minute Maid Park’s right-field foul pole, which then-teammate Howie Kendrick drilled a two-run home run off to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning of Game 7. “I love that pole.”
Scherzer has fond memories in Houston, the best yet in a decorated 16-year career. Cy Youngs, no-hitters, 20 strikeouts? Nothing is in the same stratosphere to Scherzer as hoisting that trophy.
He has been thinking about it every day since he came to Texas, every time he continued the tedious portions of his shoulder rehab. When the Rangers swept the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS, Scherzer partied with the team and threw a simulated game nursing a hangover. He was, he told team brass, ready to go. Then he allowed five runs over four innings in Game 3 and was uncharacteristically positive about the outing.
Scherzer didn’t want to let negative thoughts creep in. He knew there was a chance he’d face the Astros again this series, and the right-hander wanted every edge imaginable, so he declined to specify even the good parts about his outing.
Scherzer swore Wednesday — his first start in more than a month after dealing with a right teres major muscle strain — his arm felt fine and said he had more in the tank. Even if it wasn’t true, it’s doubtful he’d say otherwise.
Scherzer is a swearing, stomping, intense competitor who barks out names of big-league batters during February bullpens and protects his between-starts running regimen like it’s a compromise to national security.
He lives for moments like this. It’s why he agreed to waive his no-trade clause to come to Texas. It’s why general manager Chris Young made the bold move to trade for him.
“It’s Max Scherzer,” catcher Jonah Heim said. “You know the resume. You know the quality of stuff. He’s definitely going to come out and bring his A game.”
In baseball, everything is intertwined.
Scherzer pitched two seasons in Washington for Astros manager Dusty Baker, who was replaced after the 2017 season because, in part, the Nationals never could win in the postseason. Baker’s replacement, Dave Martinez, led the Nationals to a remarkable turnaround from 19-31 to champions in 2019.
That was mere weeks before The Athletic would break the story of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, causing ripple effects that included general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch losing their jobs. Baker was brought in to be a calming presence for Houston, and the 74-year-old is exactly that. The past two days, he’s been toting a peace lily plant known to bring tranquility onto the field. Typically, it resides in his office.
The glow of the Nationals’ World Series win faded fast in favor of the Astros drama and the pending pandemic. Scherzer and his teammates didn’t get to stand on the field with fans at the next home opener. They didn’t get a send-off or a special on-field ring ceremony. They won a World Series, but pieces — special, important pieces — of that were missing.
Everyone says they want to win. Scherzer, a surefire Hall of Famer, lives for it. He cried when the Nationals won in 2019, and if the Rangers are able to rally and make the organization’s first World Series appearance since 2011, who knows?
He may get a little misty Monday night, too.
“This is the biggest game of the year for us,” said pitcher Jacob deGrom, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and understands how fleeting these moments can be, “so we know he’s going to go out there and leave it all on the field.”
(Top photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)