WASHINGTON — This has been a decade of extraordinary achievement for Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals: He has more wins and strikeouts in the 2010s than any other pitcher in the majors, and three Cy Young Awards. His final start before the 2020s was supposed to be on Sunday, in Game 5 of the World Series against the Houston Astros. But his neck would not allow it.
The Nationals scratched Scherzer about four hours before Game 5, giving his start to Joe Ross. Scherzer had been struggling with a nerve condition in his neck in recent days, and on Sunday, he said, he woke up in such pain that it hurt to get out of bed. He could not even get dressed.
“This is literally impossible to do anything with,” Scherzer said, adding later, “This is just a little thing that turned into a big thing that turned into a giant thing.”
Scherzer moved haltingly, almost robotically, to his seat at a news conference at Nationals Park. He received a cortisone injection on Sunday morning, and said he was told by doctors that it could alleviate the pain in 48 hours. That would give Scherzer a chance to start a potential Game 7 at Minute Maid Park in Houston on Wednesday.
Scherzer, 35, missed four weeks this summer with a strain in his back. But he said this issue was unrelated, arising with no warning and failing to respond well to treatment.
“Usually when I get chiropractic adjustments, that usually really helps me out with these neck spasms,” he said. “I’ve dealt with them in the past different times where I just need little adjustments here and there. And that’s where I thought I was at a couple days ago: If I just do my normal treatment and get adjustments, I could be able to head this off and keep it from blowing up on me.”
Scherzer has been one of baseball’s most durable pitchers, leading the majors in innings in 2018 — his sixth year in a row with at least 200. He has been indispensable this postseason, with a 2.16 earned run average, and the Nationals have won all five games he has pitched.
The Astros pushed Scherzer in Game 1, forcing him to throw 112 pitches in five innings at Minute Maid Park, but Scherzer allowed just two runs and earned a victory. Stephen Strasburg won Game 2, but the Astros took Games 3 and 4 here to even the series, with Game 5 Sunday night.
Scherzer’s condition also influenced Game 4. The Nationals trailed by three runs in the seventh inning, theoretically a manageable deficit. But Manager Dave Martinez, mindful of the possibility of Scherzer missing Game 5, held out Ross and his best relievers — Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle — from the game. Reliever Fernando Rodney soon allowed a grand slam to Alex Bregman, putting the game out of reach.
“I didn’t use Joe and some of the other guys in case this would have happened, and hoping that he’d wake up today and feel a lot better,” Martinez said, referring to Scherzer. “He didn’t.”
Strasburg threw in the bullpen before Saturday’s game, and with Game 6 assured no matter what happened on Sunday, he was not in consideration to start on short rest in place of Scherzer. That left the job to Ross, who was 4-4 with a 5.48 E.R.A. this season — though he pitched two scoreless innings in Game 3.
“He’s got good stuff and he got his feet wet the other night, so that’ll help him, that’ll help the nerves a little bit,” Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “But you do an emergency start in Game 5 of the World Series against the Houston Astros, he’ll have to control his emotions and not be amped up and just follow the game plan and see what happens. It could be a good story, man.”
It was certainly unusual: In starting Ross — after Scherzer, Strasburg, Anibal Sanchez and Patrick Corbin — the Nationals became the first team to use five different starters in a World Series since the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies, who used Bob Walk, Steve Carlton, Dick Ruthven, Larry Christenson and Marty Bystrom in their six-game victory over the Kansas City Royals.