LOS ANGELES – Drafted a dozen years ago and maybe 20 minutes apart, Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw debuted in the major leagues within 26 days of each other, each won three Cy Young Awards, and on Friday night at Dodger Stadium shared a pitcher’s rubber, Scherzer with 144 career wins and Kershaw with 145.
There’d been painted a purply-orange sky, which lit the bleachers and the mountains behind them, the backdrop to what would be this decade’s version of Clemens-Maddux, of Carlton-Seaver, of Clemens-Martinez or Palmer-Seaver, Cy Youngs just cluttering up the place.
They are big, strong men who in many ways are the heartbeats of two of the game’s healthiest organizations. They are well decorated and well paid, and in a culture in which it is nearly impossible to lead when one’s game responsibilities come once every five days, they do anyway. The pitching is what makes them great. The rest is what makes them more valuable. It is what makes Scherzer versus Kershaw interesting, the part where they assume more than 1/25th of the load, and stand out in front every day, February to, sometimes, October.
Which is precisely why they themselves would find Scherzer-Kershaw — winner gets a night’s satisfaction in the middle of April — to be a lot less enthralling than Nationals-Dodgers, winner gets back to .500 in the middle of April. Winner, perhaps, begins to wave away the early dreariness. Winner shakes themselves and gets back to doing what everyone expected them to do. More, actually, what they expected of themselves.
See, it’s probably pretty cool when the TV cameras come to your house in November for the big Cy Young reveal. Call the family over. Have the housekeeper do an extra scrub. Put bows in the girls’ hair and everything. Quiet the dogs.
Except somebody else had always won the last game. Somebody else had won the World Series. So that’s still out there, for a lot of folks, and also for the two finest pitchers of the past decade, for Scherzer and Kershaw, who have pitched for good baseball teams, and stormed into so many falls, and somehow, some way, they find themselves on the same pitcher’s rubber in the same April still pitching for the same thing, out there still.
That is, to win tonight’s game, so that can count toward six months of games, so that could lead to one more start or maybe two, and maybe a lot more. The last time Scherzer and Kershaw pitched in the same game, Oct. 13, 2016, Scherzer pitched the first six innings for the Nationals, Kershaw the last two-thirds of an inning for the Dodgers, and the next morning the Dodgers flew off to play the Chicago Cubs in the National League championship series. The Nationals stayed back to stuff their belongings into trash bags, and hoist those into the trunks of their cars.
So it has gone for them both, year after year, sometimes failing by a lot, sometimes by a few runs, almost always pitching well, and always short.
A week ago Kershaw had been sitting on the Dodgers’ bench, thinking about athletes who impress him. Dirk Nowitzki was one. LeBron James was one. Max Scherzer was another. Something about the way Scherzer goes about it, gets after it, pitches practically with tears rolling off his face, chasing every pitch like it was his last. Scherzer would say the same for Kershaw, given how their careers have paralleled.
“I mean, yeah,” he said. “You don’t measure yourself against the worst, you measure yourself against the best. … He attacks the zone. Doesn’t walk guys. Brings it every single time.”
Kershaw, three years younger. Kershaw having sat with one franchise. Scherzer having endured the American League for five years. Kershaw striding to the mound on a Friday night in April, his shoulders slightly rolled and leading him, his left hand curled into a light fist the way it does, snatching the new ball from the ground, slamming it into his glove. “We Are Young” shaking the stadium speakers.
“So let’s set the world on fire,” it encouraged.
The Nationals put the first three balls into play with some authority, and by then were ahead, 1-0. By the eighth, by 2-0, another ball hit squarely.
The Dodgers hit the first pitch they saw off the right-field fence. The second pitch hit their shortstop. They did not score.
And, yet, clearly this would not be a fight into the late innings. Scherzer was done after six innings, after 106 pitches, having allowed four hits and a run. He struck out nine Dodgers and walked three. Kershaw, lacking the final inch or two on his put-away pitches, finished the seventh inning in 85 pitches, but allowed nine hits and four runs.
The Nationals beat the Dodgers, 5-2. Scherzer won his 145th career game, same as Kershaw.
So they start the five-day cycle again, four days to recover and repair and turn pitches into outs and outs into innings and innings into wins and wins into another shot. Maybe it’ll come with a trophy of some sort, and maybe it’ll be the one they so desperately want, and maybe it’ll be one they already have. And that’s, you know, fine. But they pitch for more.
“That’s the only thing I play this game for,” Scherzer said, “is to win the whole damn thing.”