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Max Scherzer Delivers Dodgers Debut Fit for October

The three-time Cy Young winner's performance bolstered the hopes that Los Angeles can return to the World Series.

Seven pitches into his Dodgers career, Max Scherzer had already given up his first home run with his new team. After seven innings and over 109 pitches, his night ended with a curtain call.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner made his debut as a member of the home side at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night against the Astros, five days after being a centerpiece in one of the biggest blockbuster trade deadline deals in league history. He endeared himself to his new fans right away, striking out Jose Altuve on four pitches. Michael Brantley took him deep three pitches later, seemingly putting a momentary end to the honeymoon phase.

Scherzer settled in from there, turning in a brilliant seven-inning performance. He allowed five hits and two runs with a walk and 10 strikeouts, retiring 10 of the last 12 batters he faced. The atmosphere at Dodger Stadium—attendance was 52,724, the highest of any MLB game this season—was fitting for a World Series game, and Scherzer’s performance bolstered the hopes that Los Angeles can return to that stage this fall.

The game was emblematic of this team's repeat chances. The Dodgers answered with four runs in the bottom of the first on a leadoff homer by Mookie Betts and a three-run blast from Will Smith. Betts homered again in the second inning, and the lead ballooned to 7–1 in the third following a two-run shot by A.J. Pollock.

L.A.'s warts were on display as well, though. The Dodgers' lineup is deeper than any other in baseball—with Houston's as the only possible exception—but it suddenly went cold as Scherzer kept mowing down the Astros. What appeared to be a stress-free win got a bit interesting in the late innings when Carlos Correa took Joe Kelly deep in the eighth and Kenley Jansen gave up a two-run homer to Kyle Tucker with nobody out in the ninth. Jansen responded by striking out the next three batters, and disaster was averted.

Prolonged slumps from some key stars—namely Cody Bellinger, who’s struggled through a miserable season as he’s dealt with injuries—and a bullpen that’s been shaky of late are big enough red flags to derail the Dodgers’ quest to become the first back-to-back World Series winner in two decades. Jansen has not been sharp in his six appearances since the All-Star break. He's allowed 10 runs in five innings, and his cutter was 1.3 mph slower Wednesday night than it has been all season.

Aug 4, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) throws against the Houston Astros during the second inning at Dodger Stadium.

Scherzer’s presence in the rotation won’t fix those potential pitfalls, but he gives the Dodgers an embarrassing amount of starting pitching depth that could give Los Angeles the edge it needs to run down the rival Giants in the NL West and fend off the Padres.

L.A.'s rotation features a pair of three-time Cy Young Award winners (Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw) and emerging aces Walker Buehler and Julio Urías. It also includes former Cy Young winner David Price, who is pitching both as a starter and reliever this year, as well as Tony Gonsolin and newly acquired Danny Duffy, both of whom are on the injured list. And then on Wednesday, just because they can, the Dodgers signed veteran lefty Cole Hamels, a former World Series MVP who once was one of the better starting pitchers in baseball for roughly a decade. That advantage is immense in a five- or seven-game playoff series, but the key for this team will be getting to that point in the first place. Like their two in-state division rivals, the Dodgers want to avoid the wild-card game like the plague, and it will take elite starting pitching over the next two months to do so. Their fear of having to settle for the win-or-go-home game is what prompted them to make a lucrative investment in the iconoclastic Trevor Bauer in February, and overlook all his red flags. Now, Bauer is on administrative leave and may never pitch again for the Dodgers as he awaits a hearing over disturbing sexual assault allegations.

That Scherzer and All-Star shortstop Trea Turner—who soon will be activated off the COVID-19 injured list—now play for the Dodgers feels as unbelievable as it did six days ago when the megadeal went through. The Dodgers flexed their financial and organizational might in a way no other team could, making a generational ace and an MVP candidate appear in an instant—doing so hours after it was reported that their pesky little brother 120 miles down the coast were nearing a deal for Scherzer to finish out his season in San Diego. Seeing half of that return on full display Wednesday night was a three-hour showcase in the rich getting richer, and though the Giants also won to maintain their 3.5-game lead in the division, it was hard not to feel as though the Dodgers had gained substantial ground.

Scherzer averaged 95.2 miles per hour with his fastball Wednesday, a full click above his season average coming into the game. He topped out at 97 mph, and attributed the added velocity as a sign that he was “completely over” the triceps issue from earlier in the season.

There will be bigger games for Scherzer to pitch in Dodger Blue, but his dress rehearsal for October’s big stage could not have gone better. That it came against the Astros, sworn enemies for Los Angeles, was icing on the cake.

Scherzer said after the game that he had never had a curtain call like that before. String a few more starts like that in September and October, and it likely won’t be his last.

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