HOUSTON — It was the one unknowable for the Nationals in Game 7, the one thing that could hamper this once-in-a-franchise opportunity to win the World Series: Max Scherzer’s pride.
If the multiple-Cy Young-winning right-hander was ever going to play through pain and not tell anyone how much he was hurting, Game 7 was it.
Dave Martinez, the Nationals manager who so often led with his heart before his head, had to manage the game within the game. He had to be the Mad Max Whisperer, the man of reason amid the chaos.
He had to walk the fine line every great coach or manager has had to walk when he knows the rock of his roster is neither as sharp nor as healthy as he once was: Would Martinez cede to the hyper-intense, uber-competitive Scherzer, and let the player make the call?
Or would Martinez put his intense affection aside for the gut-it-out 35-year-old who couldn’t put on his own clothes two days before because of neck spasms that forced him to get a cortisone shot at the base of his cranium?
But then, what if he pulled Scherzer too early, took out one of the primary reasons the Nationals were on the cusp of winning their first World Series title? Scherzer’s heart.
Pride vs. Heart, the internal battle all aging athletes fight – until they either retire or realize on one embarrassing afternoon they stayed too long. It happened to perhaps the greatest living player today, Willie Mays.
He had tripped and fallen in the outfield at the end of his career with the Mets, flailing at a fly ball that dropped. Writers at the time tried to give him an out, asked if the sun got in his eyes. The Say Hey Kid, then pushing 40, simply looked up and said, “No,” that this was about something else.
“Growin’ old is a helpless hurt,” Mays said.
Scherzer wasn’t past his prime, but he was running on fumes after he had to be pulled from his Game 5 scheduled start on Sunday. His neck was throbbing. He could barely move it. Cortisone was just a Band-Aid for the inflammation and the pain. How long would it last? Two innings? Four? No one knew until he took the mound and did what Scherzer does better than anyone in baseball – maybe better than anyone in sports: He battled.
And battled. He gave up two runs, including a home run. But he kept stranding runners like the Nationals stranded runners all weekend in their three losses to the Astros in DC. And each one of his five innings, he never imploded. He never walked into the dugout shell-shocked. He gave them the chance they needed to come back and win this.
And they did.
Dave Martinez let him battle. Let him pitch. Let Mad Max calm the Astros bats enough for the Nationals to wake up and turn this improbable season into the impossible.
A World Series.