PHOENIX — Max Scherzer’s role in the rest of the World Series is in flux.
The aging ace lasted just three (scoreless) innings in Game 3, which ended in a 3-1 Rangers win over the Diamondbacks on Monday night at Chase Field. After throwing a few warmup pitches to start the fourth inning, Scherzer exited his 25th career playoff start alongside a trainer, with what the Rangers announced as back tightness. Scherzer, in obvious pain, grimaced as he alighted the dugout steps and cursed in frustration on the way into the clubhouse.
After the win, Scherzer said he’s dealing with a back spasm and that “it’s locked up pretty good.” Scherzer said it’s possible he could pitch again in the World Series since it’s a spasm and not a strain. Based on experience with back spasms, which he said he’s dealt with “more than five, but less than 10” times in his career, he said he would know more about the injury in about 48 hours.
But Scherzer described the level of pain as “agony.” With his back still locked up more than 30 minutes after the final out, and more than a couple of hours since he exited his start, Scherzer inhaled his postgame meal while standing up. He was unable to sit down without added pain.
“I can’t tell you where we’re at,” Scherzer said. “I gotta see how bad this is, and if the drugs can work.”
In the second inning, Scherzer was hit by an Alek Thomas comebacker, which Scherzer later said was not involved in the back spasms that removed him from his start. Thomas connected with Scherzer’s fastball and lined it 93 mph off the bat straight to Scherzer’s pitching elbow and backside. The ball caromed toward third baseman Josh Jung, who vacuumed the grounder and fired to first for the final out of the inning. Scherzer scowled in apparent pain on his trot back into the dugout.
Suddenly, Bruce Bochy’s club was in a serious predicament. Who would cover the last 18 outs: a myriad of relievers, or Tuesday’s scheduled starting pitcher? Bochy chose the latter. Jon Gray needed minimal time to get up, stretch out, jog from the bullpen to the mound, and get ready. He was told to start getting loose after Scherzer was hit with the comebacker. Gray’s first pitch of the night after this unexpected call into action was a slider for strike one. His first fastball of the outing came in hot at 97 mph. Gray went on to hurl three scoreless innings across 30 efficient pitches.
That saved the Rangers’ pitching staff and made him an unlikely hero Monday following an uneven 2023 season for the veteran right-hander.
“I had missed so much time of the early playoffs and there was so much I couldn’t do,” Gray said. “I was celebrating with the guys after every win, but I didn’t really feel like I contributed. To be able to get a chance to help, that’s all I can ask for. I’m just very happy for that.”
Marcus Semien and Corey Seager — the Rangers’ invaluable double-play duo — delivered back-to-back run scoring hits in the third to account for all three runs. Their efforts proved to be just enough, as the Diamondbacks couldn’t quite manifest their “chaos” motto despite threatening to rally multiple times in the late innings. Texas instead took a 2-1 series lead and improved to 9-0 on the road this postseason — an MLB record — and 9-0 when scoring first.
Corey Seager crushes two-run HR to give Rangers 3-0 lead vs. D-backs
But the Rangers are sustaining aches and pains at the most inopportune time.
Star right fielder Adolis García exited Game 3 in the eighth inning with left-side tightness. He grabbed his oblique area after his final swing in the eighth, which resulted in a flyout to center field. He’ll undergo an MRI before the Rangers announce his availability moving forward. Any missed time from García would obviously be a huge blow to Texas. In the seventh, reliever Josh Sborz received a visit from the trainer, though the righty brushed any concern away and finished his one-inning outing. Amid the long season that has stretched deep into October, some cracks are showing. But Bochy keeps pushing the right buttons to cover them.
Gray was set to be a major component of the Rangers’ 2023 rotation before his production tailed off. He was still a key workhorse, logging 29 starts, 157.1 innings and a 4.12 ERA to compile 2.1 bWAR. His trip to the injured list on Sept. 28 with forearm tightness kept him off the roster for the Rangers’ first two playoff rounds. Gray pitched just one inning in Texas’ seven-game American League Championship Series triumph over the Astros, and he tossed another 1.2 innings of relief versus the Diamondbacks in Game 1.
With Scherzer dealing with yet another injury — he was also battling a blister on his pitching hand Monday and during the ALCS — Gray is likely to become more of a factor for Bochy versus the D-backs. If the Series stretches to a Game 7, don’t be surprised if it’s Gray on the hill for the Rangers in what would be the most important start of his career. Gray said he’s “absolutely” prepared to start, if need be.
“However I can help, whatever role that is — I don’t care if I have to go in blind, I don’t care,” Gray said. “We’re going to help the team out.”
Rangers’ Jon Gray joins Big Papi, Derek Jeter to discuss Game 3 win
It’s tough for Bochy and the Rangers to go back to Scherzer now for any reason beyond an emergency. Plus, Bochy’s choices throughout his managerial tenure prove he’s not afraid to bench a star, or relegate one to the bullpen. In 2012, the then-Giants skipper didn’t start Madison Bumgarner a second time in a seven-game NLCS, this after he was shelled in Game 1 of that series as well as in his lone NLDS start. In that same postseason, Bochy also moved Tim Lincecum to the bullpen for all but one of his six playoff appearances because he’d been ineffective as a starter during the regular season.
The Rangers have been relying on Scherzer, who knows how his body ticks better than most after 16 years in the majors, to tell them when he’s ready to pitch. But it might be in their best interests to stay away from the future Hall of Famer, who has posted subpar results in all three of his postseason appearances. Bochy can be sure that Scherzer will push to be available for the team — if he feels like he’s healthy enough to pitch.
“We feel like we got a good beat on what this is, how to treat it, how to get out of it,” Scherzer said.
Scherzer lasted just 2.2 innings in his most recent outing, an ALCS Game 7 start versus Houston in which he gave up two earned runs, including a home run. The three-time Cy Young winner has pitched just 9.2 innings this postseason, allowing seven earned runs and 11 hits in that span. He was only cleared to pitch beginning in the ALCS due to a shoulder strain he sustained in September. At the time, Rangers general manager Chris Young said it was unlikely Scherzer would pitch again this year. In the following weeks, Scherzer rehabbed quickly to return sooner than the Rangers had projected.
“We’ll see where he’s at in the next 24 hours and decide where we’re at with him,” Bochy said.
Christian Walker’s baserunning blunder in the second inning saved Scherzer from damage. Walker, who entered Game 3 batting .167 (8-for-48) this postseason, lined a long double to the warning track to lead off the frame. Tommy Pham, a teammate of Scherzer’s with the Mets for the first four months of this season, followed with a sharp single to right field. Walker then made two mistakes: He put his head down rounding third and blew past the (late) stop sign, and he chose to test García’s arm. The plodding first baseman’s speed from second to home was no match for García, whose 94.6 mph rocket reached the dish before Walker did for the first out of what would be a scoreless inning.
Rangers’ Adolis García throws out D-backs’ Christian Walker at home
Even though this version of Scherzer is not the lights-out one that will get him elected to Cooperstown, or even the version Texas was counting on when it traded for him this past July, the illustrious veteran might still be one of Bochy’s better options the longer the World Series continues. Since Gray was forced to pitch in Scherzer’s place, the Rangers will go with Andrew Heaney for Game 4 on Tuesday (8:03 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). Bochy’s pitching staff, with no break until Thursday’s travel day, is in a precarious position.
With two more victories to lock down before calling themselves winners, it’s important now more than ever for the Rangers to decide one thing: If Scherzer pitches one more time, will he help or hurt their pursuit of the franchise’s first championship? If it’s the latter, then Scherzer — with his aging and battered body — can say he defied the odds by pitching this postseason. His final appearance in this World Series could very well be behind him.
Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.
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