Exclusive: Max Scherzer says he didn’t snub Dodgers because of ‘overcooked’ arm

Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer delivers a pitch in Game 5 of the National League Division Series
Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer delivers a pitch in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants on Oct. 14.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Hours before Major League Baseball imposed a lockout at the beginning of the month, initiating the league’s first work stoppage in 26 years, Max Scherzer was introduced as the newest member of the New York Mets over Zoom.

Scherzer intended to not talk about the Dodgers, who had acquired him for the final three months of the 2021 season. He declined to comment if the Dodgers had made him an offer before he signed a three-year, $130-million deal to pitch in Queens. He did, however, address the disappointing ending to his time in Los Angeles when he was scratched from his start in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves.

In the news conference, Scherzer said he took time to examine the variables that led to him notifying his bosses that he couldn’t pitch in the decisive Game 6. He concluded that a lighter workload leading up to the postseason was the reason. The rationale prompted blowback from observers who believed he was blaming the Dodgers.

Denny Lemaster was a pitching phenom at Oxnard High who became a big leaguer. Buddy Salinas had a baseball signed by him in 1963 that he felt compelled to return.

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Scherzer wanted to make one thing clear in a recent telephone interview with The Times: He wasn’t scapegoating the Dodgers.

“I don’t blame the Dodgers,” Scherzer said. “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough in what I was actually talking about.”

Scherzer, 37, explained that he had conversations with manager Dave Roberts and others about his usage for the postseason. He said he spoke with Roberts after his wild-card game start against the St. Louis Cardinals — he labored through 4 1/3 innings — and told the manager he could be used out of the bullpen if needed, drawing confidence from his experience in 2019 when he helped the Washington Nationals win the World Series.

“For me, looking at how the postseason was unfolding, it looks eerily similar to what the 2019 run was for me,” Scherzer said. “I was pitching the wild-card [game] and getting into the division series, making a relief appearance, and then pitching in the NLCS as well. For me, there was a four-start run there. From the wild-card start — and this is 2019 — from the wild-card start to the relief appearance then two days later making a start against the Dodgers, throwing 110 pitches in that start and then continuing to start Game 2 against the Cardinals.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, left, relieves starting pitcher Max Scherzer during the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts relieves starting pitcher Max Scherzer during the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves on Oct. 17.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“It wasn’t about a contract situation. It’s literally my arm’s health. When you can’t throw, you can’t throw.”

— Max Scherzer

“That was a heavy workload for me in 2019, but I was able to do it. And so as the playoffs started, after the wild-card game, that’s when I was talking Doc about, ‘Hey, look I have experience doing this. I understand how this postseason works. If I do get a relief appearance, you can use me out of the ‘pen.’”

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Scherzer pitched seven innings in Game 3 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants before throwing 13 pitches in the ninth inning of Game 5 to close out the series three days later. Three days after that, he could muster just 4 1/3 innings in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves. His arm didn’t recover in time for his scheduled Game 6 start. Facing elimination, the Dodgers gave the ball to Walker Buehler on short rest for the second time in two weeks. They lost to end their season.

Scherzer again insisted there wasn’t anything structurally wrong with his arm. He said he was able to throw from 60 to 75 feet before Game 6 but his arm was too “overcooked” to start that day.

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“When I think about the 2021 run — and this is the point I was trying to make at the press conference — was that, and rightfully so, the Dodgers did the right thing protecting Walker [Buehler] and Julio [Urías] and pitching us on the sixth day. Giving us extra rest more often than not. And for me, that was … the most I had ever pitched on the sixth-day rotation. And only throwing 90 to 100 pitches, in my head that actually lowered my work capacity of what I was actually able to do on a day-to-day basis. So when I went into that postseason, I came from a lower work capacity to when I tried to do what I did in 2019 that that was just too big of a jump.

“We never took that variable into consideration. I’ve never had that variable taken into consideration and so, like I said, I bear more brunt of that because of me having those discussions with Dave about that, about how I can be used in the postseason and coming up short on that, on my end, of saying I can do something and then it didn’t happen. And that’s where no one’s to blame, no one’s at fault, it’s just you learn from this. It’s something that happens.”

Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer reacts after giving up a two-run home run to Atlanta's Joc Pederson.
Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer reacts after giving up a two-run home run to Atlanta’s Joc Pederson in Game 2 of the NLCS on Oct. 17.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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Scherzer again declined to disclose details about the Dodgers’ pursuit of him in free agency. He said his impending free agency didn’t factor into his decision to not pitch.

“If I pitch in that game, I blow out and I could be out for a year and jeopardize my career,” Scherzer said. “It wasn’t about a contract situation. It’s literally my arm’s health. When you can’t throw, you can’t throw.

“I needed time. And you don’t have time in the playoffs, and so every day mattered in that point in time. So getting pushed back to Game 7, I would’ve been able to take the ball. Like I said, I don’t know how much I would’ve been able to give, but I would’ve been in a much better position than throwing in Game 6. Throwing in Game 6, I would’ve been rolling the dice on sustaining a substantial injury. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

“For Dodger fans to be upset with me, for me to get dead arm like that, hey, that’s fair game. Look, you play with L.A., you’re here to win the World Series.”

— Max Scherzer

In 2019, Scherzer averaged 103 pitches in a career-low 27 starts. He threw at least 110 pitches in seven games. He didn’t reach that mark once in 2021.

Scherzer made one one-inning relief appearance during the 2019 postseason — in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. That was three days after throwing 77 pitches in five innings in the wild-card game and three days before tossing 109 pitches across seven innings in Game 4. His final three playoff appearances were all starts on at least four days’ rest. He started Game 1 of the World Series and had his second start pushed back to Game 7.

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Dodgers manager Dave Roberts speaks with Max Scherzer in the dugout.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts speaks with Max Scherzer in the dugout during the fifth inning of the Dodgers’ wild-card game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 6.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In 2021, Scherzer made 11 regular-season starts as a Dodger after being acquired at the July 30 trade deadline.

He arrived with nagging leg injuries — he told the Nationals he would only accept a trade to a contender on the West Coast to pitch in warmer weather down the stretch thinking it would help — and compiled a 1.98 ERA with 89 strikeouts and eight walks. He threw 109 pitches across seven innings in his debut before a rain-shorted outing of 3 1/3 innings. He then averaged 96.3 pitches per game in his final nine starts, including one that was limited to 76 pitches because of a minor hamstring injury. He logged more than 100 pitches five times, peaking once at 109.

He pitched into the seventh inning in five starts and into the eighth inning three times. With the Cy Young Award within reach, he probably would’ve been given the green light to pitch deep into his final two starts, but he gave up 10 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings.

Ultimately, he made seven starts on five days’ rest and four on four days’ rest. Overall, he averaged 94 pitches in 30 starts for the Nationals and Dodgers. He then threw 296 pitches across 16 2/3 innings in four postseason games over a 12-day span.

Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $17-million contract before the start of the lockout.

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“For Dodger fans to be upset with me, for me to get dead arm like that, hey, that’s fair game,” Scherzer said. “Look, you play with L.A., you’re here to win the World Series. I got that. I was OK with that and for fans to be upset for my dead arm, that’s fair. I can live with that.

“I still would’ve gone back and had the same conversations with Dave. Going back I don’t have regrets saying, ‘Hey, let’s do the 2019 playoff run.’ Because the 2019 playoff run worked for the Nationals and we were able to get a World Series ring out of it and that’s what we were playing for with the Dodgers as well.”