PHOENIX — Right-hander Max Scherzer walked gingerly through the Texas Rangers’ clubhouse, looking decidedly uncomfortable, flashing an occasional grimace. Maybe his back spasm will miraculously clear up by Tuesday. Or maybe the Rangers will need to make a hard decision about whether to replace him on their World Series roster.
Right fielder Adolis García was absent from the postgame clubhouse, undergoing an MRI on his left side. Rarely has a World Series victory created such uncertainty, but so it was Monday night after the Rangers beat the Diamondbacks, 3-1, to take a two-games-to-one lead in the Series. Club officials gathered in manager Bruce Bochy’s office, pondering their next moves.
Such a meeting would have been necessary regardless; the Rangers needed to pick a starter for Game 4, and ultimately settled on lefty Andrew Heaney, who will face Diamondbacks opener Joe Mantiply. The concern over Scherzer and García, however, complicated matters considerably. The Rangers might lose a slugger enjoying a historic postseason, and a future Hall of Fame pitcher they had lined up to pitch Game 7, if necessary.
“I told the trainer to quit texting me, I’m tired of you tonight,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said, exasperated by the turn of events.
Scherzer, 39, said he should know within 48 hours whether he can return in the Series. The Rangers might not have that kind of time. They have a ready-made replacement for Game 7 in Jon Gray, who pitched three scoreless innings in place of Scherzer on Monday night, giving him 4 2/3 scoreless for the Series. With two games in the next two days, the team’s best option might be to add a healthy pitcher in place of Scherzer, giving Bochy as much bullpen depth as possible.
“We obviously used Jon Gray more than we anticipated tonight,” Young said. “He gave us nine huge outs, which was unbelievable. But we were expecting 15 outs from Max, and we didn’t get that. We’re a little shorter than we wanted to be. We’ll have to evaluate and see where we are.”
Young said he believes the team is covered for Game 4 with Heaney, righty Dane Dunning and lefty Cody Bradford, each of whom might be capable of getting 9 to 12 outs. But the loss of García would potentially compromise the team’s offense, leaving the pitching staff with less margin for error and perhaps forcing Bochy to use his high-leverage relievers a second straight night if the game is close. García presumably would be replaced by Travis Jankowski in the outfield, as he was in the ninth inning of Game 3. Ezequiel Duran could replace García on the Rangers’ roster.
The situation is unusually delicate for a team within two victories of its first Series title, but the length of a baseball season presents unique challenges, often right to the end. Scherzer pointed to Gray’s performance as evidence that the Rangers are “a great team.” But good luck finding a comparable substitute for García, who injured himself swinging on a flyout to center to end the eighth inning.
García, 30, went 0-for-3 with a walk in Game 3, but he is batting .323 with eight home runs and a 1.108 OPS in these playoffs. His 22 RBIs are a record for a single postseason, albeit with the qualifier that he is playing an extra round in expanded playoffs. Among the Rangers, perhaps only Corey Seager has been as valuable in October.
Bochy moved García from the fourth to the third spot for Game 3, a strategic move to break up two left-handed hitters, Seager and Evan Carter. No matter where García hits, he makes the lineup more threatening. But seeing him bent over as the Rangers’ athletic trainers attended to him on the field, then bent over again in the tunnel adjoining the dugout, it was difficult to imagine him making a miraculous recovery in time for Game 4, if at all in this Series.
Scherzer appeared just as unlikely to continue, at least from the way he was moving in the clubhouse after the game. Young all but conceded that if Scherzer is not significantly improved by Tuesday, the Rangers might need to summon an injury replacement, one of the non-roster pitchers who is traveling with the club and continuing to throw. The group consists of righties Grant Anderson and Matt Bush and lefties Brock Burke and Jake Latz.
“If he can’t bend over, I don’t see how in four days … ” Young said, referring to the possibility of another Scherzer start. However, the GM quickly added he did not want to speculate further, considering that medication sometimes accelerates recoveries. As Scherzer put it, “I’ve got to see how bad this is, if the drugs can work.”
Is he taking something simply to relax the spasm or something stronger?
“All of the above,” Scherzer said.
Yet, even if Scherzer shows sudden improvement, how much can the Rangers trust him to be effective in a potential Game 7? And why would the Rangers risk getting caught a pitcher short playing three games in three days if Scherzer is even remotely questionable?
Scherzer’s outing Monday night was only his third since returning from a five-week absence due to a strained right teres major muscle. The consensus among the Rangers was that in the three innings he pitched, he showed progress. Scherzer, ever proud, said, “I was feeling good. I was finally feeling like I was going to get deep into a game, finally get some rhythm, finally get going here.”
Perhaps. But he still didn’t look like the Max of old. Hasn’t, really, for much of the season.
Scherzer recorded only two swings-and-misses in 36 pitches, issued two walks, threw a wild pitch. He caught a break when the Diamondbacks’ Christian Walker ran through a stop sign in the second inning and García threw him out at the plate, depriving the Diamondbacks’ of a first-and-third, none-out situation. While Scherzer popped up the next batter, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., he needed another break to escape the inning. Third baseman Josh Jung recovered a comebacker that bounced off Scherzer’s elbow, then made a strong throw to retire Alek Thomas.
Scherzer said he first experienced tightness in his back on a slider to Evan Longoria, who led off the third and was the only Diamondbacks player to strike out against him. The problem got worse as he issued a walk to Corbin Carroll two batters later. Scherzer retired Ketel Marte on a flyball to end the threat, and the Rangers tried to treat him between innings, to no avail. After Scherzer threw two warmup pitches in the fourth, he limped off the mound, clearly frustrated, nearly in tears.
Over the past two seasons, he has dealt with one physical issue after another. A strained right oblique and left side irritation prompted separate trips to the injured list in 2022. An issue with his right scapula delayed one of his starts with the Mets in April. His right teres major strain kept him out the final 20 days of the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs.
Scherzer, drawing on his own history, took solace in the way he recovered from spasms in his neck and upper right trapezius to pitch five innings for the Nationals in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. “When it’s a neck, it’s even worse,” he said. “But look at that. I was able to snap out of that in 72 hours.”
Four years ago, yes.
“These are just little things, this is just an ailment. There is definitely a path forward for me to get out of this and get back onto the mound.,” Scherzer said. “It’s a spasm. You’re locked up right now. Once you get the spasm to clear and the muscle relaxes, you’re good to go again. It’s not like a strain. It’s just a spasm.”
He is raging against the dying of the light, at least as far as his 2023 season is concerned. Barring dramatic improvement overnight, the Rangers might face no choice but to replace him with a healthy pitcher. Scherzer is all about winning. He might need to follow that credo, even if it means winning without him.
(Top photo of Max Scherzer: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)