Column: Which Max Scherzer will show up next? Dodgers’ margin for error is slim

Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer pitches against the San Diego Padres.
Max Scherzer pitches against the San Diego Padres in the first inning at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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The Dodgers have Max Scherzer.

The sentence doesn’t mean what it did a couple of days ago, when they could still take comfort in how they would have the best pitcher in baseball on the mound if they wound up in the National League wild-card game.

Now that the previously unhittable Scherzer followed a clunker last week with another this week, the same words have become a source for concern.


The Dodgers have Max Scherzer. Gulp. Tremble.


The already foreboding prospect of playing in the single-game, single-elimination wild-card round should now be downright frightening, especially with the streaking St. Louis Cardinals locked in as the opponent.

The Dodgers have three days to get themselves out of the potential game of Russian roulette.

Hosting the Milwaukee Brewers in a season-ending three-game series that starts Friday, the Dodgers will be looking to catch the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants, who finish the season with their own three-game set against the San Diego Padres. Trading places in the standings with the Giants will require a near-miracle, as the Dodgers remain two games back of their division rivals.

With more than 100 victories, the Dodgers have won more games than the Brewers. With a payroll of more than $260 million, the Dodgers have also spent more than the Brewers on player wages.

Dodgers get five homers, two from Corey Seager, and easily defeat San Diego.

Sept. 30, 2021

But the Brewers don’t have to concern themselves with the possibility of the wild-card game. As the NL Central champions, they have a direct pass to the best-of-five divisional round.

The Dodgers have the second-best record in baseball behind the Giants and could be one-and-done in the postseason.


“To be in a one-game sudden death certainly isn’t appealing to us — or the Giants — but it is what it is,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Right now, I don’t put much time into it because it’s what our fate could be.”

If the Dodgers can’t win their ninth consecutive division title and it comes to that, Roberts is convinced his team will deal with the situation as well as it can. The Dodgers, if anything, are battle-tested. They are the defending World Series champions. They have reached the World Series three times in the last four years.

“I think our guys, if presented with [the wild-card game], will embrace it,” Roberts said. “I think the great thing about baseball is you still have to go out there and execute. That’s what the media and the fans feed off of. If it gets to that point, I know we’ll be prepared for that night.”

Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer exhales before his windup.
Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer exhales before his windup in the sixth inning against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Scherzer, 37, the team’s prized trade deadline acquisition, was 3-0 with a 2.40 earned-run average for the Washington Nationals in the 2019 postseason in which they won the World Series. The Nationals were unbeaten in Scherzer’s five playoff starts.

Scherzer posted a 0.78 ERA in his first nine starts with the Dodgers, prompting Roberts to declare last week that he would start if the team were in a tiebreaking 163rd regular-season game against the Giants or the wild-card game.


In his two starts since then, however, Scherzer has allowed 10 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings.

The Cardinals had a team-record 17-game winning streak that ended Wednesday. They have already said their starter in the wild-card game will be Adam Wainwright.

Pitching in the wild-card game would likely make Scherzer unavailable to start in the NLDS until Game 3, meaning he would pitch only once in the best-of-five series.

Walker Buehler is scheduled to start for the Dodgers in their regular-season finale against the Brewers, but Roberts said the assignment is tentative — in other words, the hard-throwing right-hander could be an option for the wild-card game if the Giants clinch the division before Sunday.

Buehler pitched seven scoreless innings against the Padres on Tuesday, which offered welcome relief from a four-game stretch in which his ERA was 7.32.

Another possibility: Buehler leads the Dodgers to a victory on Sunday that moves them into a tie in the standings with the Giants and Scherzer starts Game 163 against the Giants but loses.


The many spectators who left Dodger Stadium with the Dodgers down against the Padres missed the home team’s most spectacular comeback this season.

Sept. 30, 2021

In that case, the Dodgers’ starter in the wild-card game would probably be Clayton Kershaw, who was sidelined for two months with an elbow injury and returned from the disabled list Sept. 13. Kershaw? Against the Cardinals?

That feels ominous, doesn’t it?

The road back to the World Series remains open for the Dodgers. Only this year, the journey figures to be more treacherous than it was last year, their margin for error smaller.