Max Scherzer became a World Series champion hours ago, but stress still lingered around the MU alum and two-time Cy Young winner.
He was in a small party at the team hotel, but his focus wasn't on his most recent accomplishment. He was worried about the group of family and friends he was celebrating with on Wednesday night. He brought his father on stage to do an interview and kept checking in with former coaches and teammates.
“I could see he was more stressed that everything was going well for everybody,” former MU assistant baseball coach Tony Vitello said. “Sort of like a wedding where he couldn’t quite enjoy himself with everything going on.”
Scherzer was fresh off a gritty performance where he overcame a neck injury to pitch in Game 7.
On Tuesday night, after the Washington Nationals forced the deciding game with a 7-2 win over the Houston Astros in Game 6, Vitello got a text message. Scherzer informed a group chat of his former coaches and teammates that he was going to battle and start in tomorrow's winner-take-all game.
24 hours later, he was soaked in champagne after becoming a World Series champion. Arrangments were made by Scherzer's wife, Erica, for Vitello and some of Scherzer's college teammates to come out for the game that night.
“I was elated for him to get the opportunity because I knew how much he was beating himself up over not being able to go in Game 5,” Vitello said.
Scherzer missed that pivotal game on Sunday, barely able to turn his head or get dressed. As he sat in the dugout, the Nationals fell 7-1 and faced a 3-2 series deficit. Vitello and six former MU teammates noticed Scherzer in low spirits after the game.
“We were all at Game 5 and no one really knew what to say,” Vitello said. “Everybody just asked him how he was doing, and it was pretty clear his spirits were down. He could barely turn his head to talk to people.”
Scherzer got a chance to flip the script on Wednesday night, surprising everyone to face a star-studded Astros lineup for the second time days after he had trouble putting on his shirt.
Ken Rosenthal, senior baseball writer for The Athletic, only remembers one other time where a pitcher came back from this kind of an injury in a series-clinching game. It was Pedro Martinez, who pitched six no-hit innings for the Boston Red Sox in relief in Game 5 of the 1999 AL Division Series with a strained back muscle.
"If an injury like that happened during the regular season, the pitcher almost certainly would go on the injured list, his team taking no chances," Rosenthal said in an email.
Not 100 percent, the pitcher nicknamed Mad Max was in bend-don't-break mode for a start against one of the best lineups in baseball. Scherzer is known for his maniacal nature and fiery personality on the mound, so his injury might have been a blessing in disguise.
"Because he’s so fiery sometimes that flame can burn a little too bright," Vitello said. "And so being the way he was might’ve helped him by settling him down a little bit.”
Scherzer struggled, giving up two runs in five innings, but kept the Nationals in the game facing just a 2-0 deficit after five innings. Scherzer struggled with command and gave up a lot of baserunners, but wiggled his way out of most of those jams, forcing the Astros to leave nine runners on base in those five innings.
“I feel like I’m a positive guy and I never envisioned Game 7,” Vitello said. “I never envisioned him pitching in it. I think he kind of exceeded everyone’s expectations just being out there."
The performance from Scherzer was an example of the kind of competitiveness he showed at Missouri and in his career with the Detroit Tigers and Nationals.
"I don’t think anyone is surprised," Rosenthal said. "Scherzer pitched brilliantly with a broken nose in June. He lives for the big moments, and was going to do everything possible to get back on the mound."
Vitello noticed that competitiveness at MU when Scherzer ate two Chipotle burritos at a team meal. They jokingly challenged him to a third. Scherzer wouldn't back down and ate it.
“It’s just a lifestyle for him,” Vitello said. “He’s going to be like that no matter what it is. If he’s going to play ping-pong against you he’s going to do his absolute best to try and beat you."
Scherzer left the game after five innings and didn't get the win, but his damage control in the early innings set the stage for Anthony Rendon and the Washington offense to stage a comeback, with six unanswered runs sealing the series in a 6-2 win.
"He kept the game under control, giving the Nationals a chance to come back," Rosenthal said. "Being down 2-0 is much different than being down say, 5-0."
After the victory Scherzer ran out of the dugout and mobbed the rest of his teammates. In tears, he hugged both the Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo and pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who Scherzer was teammates with for the Detroit Tigers from 2012-2014.
“After the game he was as he is in all things: he does it in an emotional way,” Vitello said. “This time it was in a really positive way. He wears it on the sleeve when he’s on the mound and does that in every way of life.”