MLB playoffs 2023: Which version of Max Scherzer can the Texas Rangers count on going forward?

After his rocky outing in Game 3 gave the Astros their first lead of the series and the Rangers their first loss of the playoffs, Scherzer is more question than answer

ARLINGTON, Texas — I know someday we will think predominantly, if not exclusively, about Max Scherzer at his best. When his career becomes legacy, it will all be glowing. That is the future for a man who is often introduced alongside a reference to Cooperstown. When he is older, when he is no longer capable of throwing 95 mph — which he still very much can — we will talk about the larger-than-life persona, the Mad Max of it all, without caveats.

It is only now, while he still takes the mound, that it becomes apparent how the persona has come to dwarf the man himself.

It’s not just that Scherzer was bad Wednesday. After the Texas Rangers took the first two games of the ALCS with relative ease, Scherzer handed the Houston Astros their first lead of the series in Game 3 — giving up five runs in four innings and exiting the game while his offense was still getting no-hit. After receiving nothing but sterling starts from their pitchers this postseason, the then-undefeated Rangers suddenly found themselves in a deep hole.

And even as the offense — largely in the form of Josh Jung homers — recorded five runs of their own, the Astros always kept the game out of reach. Scherzer’s struggles not only put his team at a deficit; they also exposed more of the bullpen to an Astros lineup that loves to play in the Rangers’ park. The game ended 8-5. Scherzer took the loss.

But the performance would’ve been less gut-wrenching to watch if it had been more surprising.

To be clear, Scherzer is still better than that. In the regular season, he gave up five or more runs just seven times in 27 starts. In 23 starts last season, he never gave up five or more runs — at least not in the regular season. In his lone playoff start in 2022, he surrendered seven runs in 4⅔ innings as the 101-win Mets were bounced in the first round.

Now, the conclusion should not be that Max Scherzer can’t hack it in October. Before that start for the Mets, he had a career 3.22 ERA in the postseason, including a heroic effort in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series to bring a championship to D.C.

No, the problem is not rising to the moment but, rather, succumbing to his own physical limitations. At 39, Scherzer is old by baseball standards. Over the past few years, injuries have kept him off the mound at times. In 2021, after a stellar second half with the Dodgers, Scherzer was scratched from Game 6 of the NLCS due to arm fatigue. Last year, he spent two stints on the injured list because of muscle issues, including down the stretch in September before his implosion in the wild card.

The ill-fated outing Wednesday in Arlington was his first start in 36 days after he ended the season on the IL due to a low-grade strain of his teres major muscle, which aids in shoulder movement. At the time, it seemed likely to be season-ending, but a month later, Scherzer and manager Bruce Bochy both said they considered bringing him back even earlier, for the Division Series.

“Really, it started not too long after the injury,” Bochy said a couple of days ago about Scherzer’s lobbying efforts to return to the rotation.

“I want to pitch. I want the ball. That's just how I tick,” Scherzer said the day before his start. “So, yeah, I'm always going to have conversations if I'm hurt to try to get back.”

“It's just who Max is,” Bochy said.

That part of Scherzer’s identity remains undiminished. He is still the consummate big-game pitcher — if you’re judging by intent. But would that Max be available when he took the mound in Game 3? How would he feel? How long could he go? How effective would he be after only a sim game to bridge the gap between a month without competing and a playoff appearance?

Max Scherzer: more question than answer. And that is what made it so difficult to watch him flounder in Game 3. We were worried this was coming.

To answer the question about his health, Scherzer insisted after the game he felt fine.

“Physically, actually really good,” he said. “The arm responded well. I still feel like I had stuff in the tank.”

It’s an assessment on which he repeatedly doubled down. His catcher, Jonah Heim, reiterated it as well, saying, “If the stuff is not there, then you're kind of worried. But stuff was there.”

The numbers backed that up — Scherzer’s fastball ranged from 93 to 96 mph, a tick up from his 2023 average of 93.7. He mixed in all five of his pitches. Both pitcher and catcher chalked up the runs to a couple of mistakes. But even some of the outs were crushed. Scherzer threw 63 pitches in total; the Astros put 12 balls in play against him, and nine were hit with an exit velocity over 95 mph.

If not the stuff, then what went wrong?

“I wish I had all the answers,” Heim said.

Maybe the slider wasn’t sharp enough or Scherzer’s ability to locate wasn’t accurate enough. He might not be hurting, but even his manager had to admit he was probably rusty. Spending time on the IL has consequences when the margins are slim and the opposition is among the best in baseball.

Whatever the reason, after opening the postseason with seven straight victories, the Rangers suddenly looked vulnerable Wednesday, and the Astros pounced.

Some rust is OK if Scherzer shakes it off. The Rangers still lead the series 2-1 with two more games to play at home. But they will need him again — potentially to survive this round and even more so if they advance to the World Series. With Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi dominating so far this month, adding back Scherzer and Jon Gray — who also returned from the IL on Wednesday and gave up one run in one inning of relief — could give Texas the kind of rotation that inspires confidence.

But it’s hard to feel secure about what Scherzer showed in Game 3. Maybe the growling, gritty, lunatic of lore, the guy who can carry a whole team to victory, the pitcher worth building a persona around will be back this October to burnish his Hall of Fame bona fides.

Or maybe that version lives only in the past, a man who became myth, only to become a man again.