PHOENIX — Heading into Max Scherzer’s first World Series start since he came back from neck spasms to pitch the Washington Nationals to a championship in Game 7 in 2019, the Texas Rangers must have been primarily concerned with how effective he would be against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Scherzer, who was pitching in his 30th postseason game and making his fourth career World Series start, was acquired by the Rangers at the trade deadline to give the contending team a battle-tested starter to bolster their depleted rotation. He posted a 3.20 ERA in eight starts for Texas but finished the regular season on the injured list due to a teres major strain.
After more than a month without pitching in a competitive game, he returned to the mound for Game 3 of the ALCS, surrendering five runs in four innings in what turned into the Rangers’ first loss of the postseason. After that game, Scherzer said that physically he felt fine, and it was simply a matter of executing better. He was back to start the decisive Game 7, grinding through 2⅔ innings on 44 pitches and giving up two runs in what turned into a Texas blowout to secure a trip to the World Series.
Ahead of the World Series, a new issue emerged: a cut on the thumb of Scherzer’s pitching hand. He threw a bullpen with a Band-Aid, and the day before his start, he told reporters that he had “found a way to use cotton and Super Glue in a way that provides a layer for that not to get cut as well. A little arts and crafts in the training room at times, but that's what you've got to do.”
But even if he was effective, how efficient would he be? Scherzer himself admitted to not being fully built back up to a normal starter pitch count. The Rangers relied on their two October aces — Nathan Eovaldi and Jordan Montgomery — to split the first two games of this series in Texas. Heading into the final three-games-in-three-days stretch of the year, they had yet to announce who would start Game 4. Their bullpen was stocked with swingmen and starters at various points of recovery from injury or setback. But first, the team had to see how Scherzer would fare in Game 3.
It took just 12 pitches for him to get through a scoreless first inning, just eight more to get through a scoreless second. But the last out of the inning came on a comebacker up the middle off the bat of Alek Thomas that hit Scherzer in the pitching elbow before being fielded. Down in the bullpen, the phone rang, and just in case, Jon Gray started getting loose.
In his second season with the Rangers, Gray made 29 starts before ending the season on the IL. When he returned, alongside Scherzer in the ALCS, Gray was sent to the bullpen. But after a couple of relief appearances, he seemed to be at least a possible, if not likely, starter for Game 4.
Until he was pressed into action Monday.
Scherzer went back out for the bottom of the third with a 3-0 lead and shut down the Diamondbacks. But internally, he’d begun to sense something was wrong. He first felt it on a slider to Evan Longoria, who led off the inning — a spasm in his back, not unlike the ones he dealt with during the 2019 World Series, though at least not in his neck like they were then. By the time Scherzer gave up a walk to Corbin Carroll two batters later, it was getting bad. Still, he escaped another scoreless inning with his pitch count at 36 and the 3-0 lead intact.
“I was finally feeling like I was going to finally get deep into a game and finally get some rhythm and finally get going here,” Scherzer said after the game. “And then, you know, I have a little spasm. So it's frustrating.”
The Rangers attempted some treatment while the team batted, and initially, Scherzer went back out for the fourth.
“By then, it was fully locked up,” he said. “I would have tried — I tried, and I just wasn't gonna be myself. I was going to do more damage than good.”
He looked visibly pained during his warm-up tosses, motioned for the athletic trainer and exited in obvious distress.
Max Scherzer left tonight's game with back tightness pic.twitter.com/JQOP6WvlkC
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 31, 2023
Gray — who six years ago made his first and only postseason appearance prior to this October in a disastrous start for the Colorado Rockies at Chase Field — entered in relief. The prospect of revenge for that awful, abbreviated appearance was on his mind.
So was his eagerness to come through for his team.
“I had missed so much time of the early playoffs, and there was so much I couldn't do,” Gray said later. “I was celebrating with the guys every win. But I didn't really feel like I contributed, and so to be able to get a chance to help is, man, it's all I can ask for. I'm just very happy for that.”
He was stellar. Against a D-backs lineup that has overperformed expectations by putting constant pressure on opposing pitchers, Gray went three scoreless innings while surrendering a single hit and no walks. He said the bullpen experience has been a good one. He doesn’t get as nervous before games, isn’t as worked up the whole day before a start.
“It feels like I'm playing more of a sport. I like it. I get out there, and it's a really simple game plan: me versus him,” he said. Plus, it allows him to rely on only his two best pitches and throw each at something near max effort.
“I feel like I haven't had to be so fine with everything because everything has a little extra life on it.”
“Definitely the hero tonight,” catcher Jonah Heim said of Gray.
In this one, Gray got the game to the Rangers’ trio of go-to relievers. Josh Sborz continued to be lights-out, Aroldis Chapman was shaky but survivable — giving up the only run Arizona scored — and José Leclerc closed it out. The 3-1 victory gave Texas a lead in the series but ended with questions.
Star slugger Adolis García exited due to an injury after an awkward swing, and his status remained unclear by the end of the night. And now the Rangers have between two and four more games to cover from a pitching perspective. It’ll start with Andrew Heaney in Game 4 — but he has yet to throw more than 3⅔ innings at any point this postseason. He’ll likely be backed up by Dane Dunning.
Then what? And what if the series goes seven? Game 7 would be normal rest for both Scherzer and Gray, if both or either are up to it.
Scherzer was adamant Monday night that his elbow is fine despite being hit. The issue is whether the spasms will clear up in time for him to pitch again at any point this series. Based on his experience, he said it'll come down to how things evolve over the next 48 hours.
“I can't tell you where we're at,” he said. “I got to see how bad this is, if the drugs can work.”
Gray, for his part, insisted that he could pitch again as soon as Tuesday — if that’s what the team needs to win a championship.
“If that's something we need? Absolutely,” he said. “However I can help, whatever role that is. I don't care if I have to go in and bunt.”
The Rangers will probably leave the bunting to the Diamondbacks, but they’ll need their deep but beleaguered arsenal of starters to be willing to make unconventional appearances.
For now, as Heim said, “I think we just take it one pitch, one inning at a time and go from there. That's all you can really do in the postseason, let alone the World Series."