Thursday evening, Max Scherzer will take the mound at Nationals Park in D.C. and, finally, throw the first pitch of the 2020 MLB season. Shortly thereafter, Gerrit Cole will take the mound for the Yankees and throw his first pitch, officially cementing a rematch from Game 1 of the World Series almost nine months ago.
And what a game that was: Scherzer, who had a 2.92 ERA in the regular season, gave up a pair of runs in the first inning, staking Houston to a quick 2-0 lead. Cole, meanwhile, kept the Nats mostly off-guard through four innings, but a pair of solo homers allowed made it 2-2 halfway through – and then Washington finally got to Cole, scoring three in the fifth (in a game they won 5-4) to basically hand Cole his first loss in five months; after a loss on May 22 to the White Sox dropped Cole to 4-5, he won 16 straight decisions to finish 20-5, and then won all three of his starts in the ALDS and ALCS.
From that moment on, though, the two were intertwined based on the way their managers, A.J. Hinch and Dave Martinez, did or didn’t use them (and others) the rest of the way, and it may be the reason why Scherzer has both a ring and a Cy Young, while Cole was robbed of both within weeks of each other.
There was supposed to be a rematch in Game 5, but Scherzer was unable to go that night, due to neck and back spasms that, unfortunately, rendered him unable to gut through even trying to pitch.
“I've had little neck spasms over the past, I know how to get through them. I was able to play catch yesterday, and then when I woke up this morning I was completely locked up. It's not just a muscle spasm. In talking to the doctors here, the nerve that's in the neck is all jammed up,” Scherzer said prior to Game 5 after he was officially scratched. “I've pitched through so much crap in my career that would be easy to pitch through at this point. This is literally impossible to do anything with.”
It was a pivotal game in many ways – Houston had won two straight, the Nats didn’t want to get swept in DC in their first World Series, and with the series tied 2-2, the winner needed to win one game in Houston to win the series – but Scherzer watched as Cole dominated, pitching seven strong innings of three-hit ball and taking a shutout into the seventh before allowing a Juan Soto solo homer.
“I thought this stuff was crisper, I thought we executed more pitches (than in Game 1),” Cole said after the win. “This is a seven-game series, we just came off a seven-game series. Ultimately if you push these series deep, six, seven games, you're going to end up playing a lot of games in October. And so we just take the mentality like we took during the regular season, we're just going to kind of put one foot in front of the next, respond to the challenges that come our way and you shower off the mistakes, and celebrate the amazing plays. Celebrate the amazing pitches.”
Three days later, after the Nats had made the home team 0-6 in the series, it all came down to a pivotal Game 7 – and this time, there was no keeping Scherzer off the mound, as he had even warmed up in case he was needed in Game 6.
“The cortisone shot worked. That relieved the pressure on the nerve, and then keep applying heat. Our chiropractor, he does amazing work, he was able to go in there and make adjustments,” Scherzer said after Game 6. “Even when I was warming up tonight I felt really good. I’m good to go. It's Game 7. This is what you live for. Let's go.”
Scherzer did indeed go out there and give it all he had, giving up two runs over five innings but leaving in a 2-0 deficit, and having to hope his team fought back against an All-Star in his own right in Zack Greinke. Of course they did, thanks to two huge home runs in the sixth that gave the Nats a 3-2 lead…and this is where the connection will live forever between Cole and Scherzer, and A.J. Hinch and Grady Little.
The entire series, Nationals manager Dave Martinez knew he had two relievers he could trust no matter what, and was willing to get creative to navigate around a bullpen that was inconsistent at best outside of Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle. In Game 1, that meant an inning out of Patrick Corbin on a throw day and eight outs from his back-end pair, leaving only one out (gotten by Tanner Rainey) unsolved.
That was the only game of the series decided by less than four runs in the end, but when Game 7 rolled around, Martinez wasn’t shy about using every arrow in his quiver – and in that case, it was again Corbin, who came in three days after starting Game 4 and made his second appearance of the series as a reliever, throwing three innings of two-hit shutout ball as the Nationals piled on.
The same Corbin who was barely a year into a six-year, $140 million deal, did whatever his skipper needed to make sure Washington brought home their first ever World Series, even though the bullpen was well-rested from an off-day and a Game 6 that saw 11 pitches over two-thirds of an inning from Sean Doolittle the only need from the relief corps.
On the other side, though? A.J. Hinch also had a suspect bullpen, one that imploded in a blowout Game 2 loss and had thrown 19 1/3 innings in the series, more of them in the Astros’ three wins than their three losses.
Hinch had Gerrit Cole warming and ready when Zack Greinke got in trouble in the seventh, but he went first to Will Harris, who gave up the virtual game-winning homer to Howie Kendrick, and later went to Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, Joe Smith (who gave up the final two runs) and Jose Urquidy, who had started Game 4, instead of Cole, a pending free agent who was on his throw day.
“I wasn't going to pitch him unless we were going to win the World Series and have a lead. He was going to help us win. He was available, and I felt it was a game that he was going to come in had we tied it or taken the lead. He was going to close the game in the 9th after I brought Osuna in had we kept the lead,” Hinch said of Cole.
It all ended up as just lip-service, though, as Dave Martinez allowed his strong stable of starters to indeed do whatever was necessary to win the World Series, while Cole remained in the bullpen wondering what could’ve been, as he had apparently told Hinch he wouldn’t come into the game if the Astros were trailing – not exactly a quote endemic of a team player, if true.
And now, nearly nine months later, Cole and Scherzer will be linked again as the starters for the first game of 2020. Scherzer, just a few days shy of his 36th birthday and in the penultimate year of his own huge contract won’t get the ballyhoo that usually comes with Opening Day in the home stadium of the defending champs, but he’ll still have the pressure as the bulldog of the defending champs.
And Cole? At age 29, he begins his first year in a new organization, his first year on the largest contract ever handed out to a pitcher, and his first year with a team where, even more so now coming off their first calendar decade without a World Series appearance, expectations are pennant or bust.
In the opening salvo of a 60-game sprint, in what many believe will be a 2020 World Series preview, who will take the early lead?
Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroWFAN