He was just so-so in the wild-card game. He lost his only start of this series.
None of that mattered now.
Max Scherzer was a hero, a Dodgers hero.
The 37-year-old right-hander emerged shirtless (again) from the team’s champagne-spraying party on Thursday night, walking on to the field at Oracle Park in blue shorts and sandals. A pair of goggles were on his head.
The hundreds of blue-towel-waving fans behind the visitor’s dugout serenaded him with a familiar chant.
“M-V-P!” they shouted in unison. “M-V-P!”
Earlier in the night, the ace had become the closer, Scherzer recording the final three outs of a 2-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game 5 of their instant classic National League Division Series.
“I just told them I was hot and ready to go,” the team’s prized midseason trade acquisition said.
The Dodgers advanced to their fifth NL Championship Series in six years, as Scherzer registered the first-ever save of his 14-year career with assistance from an egregious strike-three call by first base umpire Gabe Morales.
Scherzer was scheduled to start a potential Game 1 against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS but determined to pitch in this game.
“Max was lobbying for the last couple days,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Roberts said the plan remained for Scherzer to start on Saturday night at Truist Park but added a caveat.
“We knew going into this if we used him tonight there might be a cost,” Roberts said. “Obviously, we’ll talk to Max tomorrow and just kind of see where he’s at.”
From the outside, it looked as if the situation was unnecessarily complicated by Andrew Friedman and the other brainiacs in the front office. The Dodgers won the other game in this NLDS started by Julio Urías but decided they wanted to deploy Corey Knebel as an opener in front of him in Game 5.
Urías had spent the previous five years as the Dodgers brain trust’s experimental subject, placed on innings limits and, once, a midseason break, all as part of a failed effort to protect his precocious left arm. (Urías underwent a major shoulder operation in 2017.)
This season was Urías’ first as a full-time starter.
He made 32 starts. He went 20-3 to become the National League’s first 20-game winner in five years. He posted a 2.96 earned-run average.
In modern baseball, roles are more fluid, the distinction between a starter and reliever diminishing every season. Wins for pitchers have been devalued.
Those views aren’t shared by the players, however. They care about whether they start. They cherish wins.
Knowing that, hadn’t Urías earned the right to start Game 5?
“Absolutely,” Roberts said. “Without a doubt. I think if you’re looking at the player, the person, the probables, feather in his cap, all that kind of stuff, does he deserve it? Do I want that for him? Absolutely.”
But the primary decision makers in organizations aren’t former players such as Roberts. The group that discussed the matter, according to Roberts, included the “tippy top of the Dodgers organization.”
The Dodgers wouldn’t have dared approach the likes of Scherzer or Walker Buehler about pitching behind an opener. Scherzer and Buehler would have told them to get lost. But in Urías, they had a soft-spoken pitcher who was used to playing along with their unconventional ideas.
The fact similar requests wouldn’t be made of Scherzer and Buehler was something Roberts attempted to sell as a positive. Urías registered the final outs of the NLCS and World Series last year. He had experience Scherzer and Buehler didn’t.
“I think that the first look is to say that it’s a slight on Julio,” Roberts said. “It’s actually a compliment to him being able to adjust and also allowing for other guys to have the best opportunity to take down outs.”
Urías was on board with the plan, Roberts said.
By starting the right-handed Knebel, the Dodgers pushed the Giants into starting the left-handed-hitting Tommy La Stella and Mike Yastrzemski, who were removed from the game when their turns to face the left-handed Urías came up; as a result, they were unavailable to pinch hit later in the game.
But after Knebel pitched the first inning and No. 2 opener Brusdar Graterol the second, Urías pitched only four innings. He was finished after only 59 pitches.
Blake Treinen pitched the seventh inning and Kenley Jansen the eighth, setting up Scherzer to enter the game after Bellinger drove in the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning with a single to right field.
Scherzer forced Brandon Crawford to fly out to left field. That’s when disaster nearly struck, as Scherzer induced a grounder by Kris Bryant that third baseman Justin Turner failed to properly field.
Bryant reached base but Scherzer wasn’t shaken, striking out LaMonte Wade Jr.
He got ahead of Wilmer Flores in the count, 0-2, and threw an 87-mph slider out of the strike zone. Flores checked his swing, but home plate umpire Doug Eddings pointed to Morales, who presented the Dodgers with a gift.
Strike three. Game over.
Scherzer had his save. The Dodgers had their place in the NLCS.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.