Max Scherzer and the Dodgers savor a narrow, difficult, monumental Game 5 win over the Giants

SAN FRANCISCO — One (shortened) season and a half removed from winning a storybook World Series with the Washington Nationals, Max Scherzer uprooted his family and approved a midseason trade to Los Angeles because he thought it would give him the best possible chance to win a championship. Another one.

Soaked in Champagne — as his two young daughters toddled, one of them barefoot, around the bases — Scherzer offered a couple of pronouncements about what he values over the course of his postgame comments Thursday night:

“I like to party.”

“I love winning.”

The 2021 Dodgers, he had decided, seemed like winners. And in a pivotal, pressure-packed, advance-or-go-home Game 5 against the San Francisco Giants, they had been — gritting through a 2-1 victory to emerge from a National League Division Series added instantly to the annals of iconic baseball history.

“That's what we do all these sacrifices for,” Scherzer said. “Put our family through the wringer, it’s to have these types of moments, to win, to be able to celebrate with them.”

That’s sort of the funny thing about being an athlete: The goal is always the same, and even after you’ve reached it once, it stays just as alluring and just as far away. And if you come up just short? There’s no such thing as a consolation prize.

That's how the reigning champions found themselves heading into the ninth inning of an elimination game still just as knotted up with a Giants team no one saw coming as they had been for days or months, depending on how you frame it.

Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger raises his arm in excitement after hitting the go-ahead RBI single against the Giants.
Cody Bellinger's RBI single was the moment that eventually, finally decided the NLDS — and the season-long showdown between the Dodgers and Giants. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Robert Gauthier via Getty Images)

Two seasons come down to one inning

To that point each team had: 109 wins, one run, six hits, and three outs left to prove that they deserved a chance to play for the pennant.

For eight innings, their strategies to suppress the other’s offense had largely worked. Giants manager Gabe Kapler leaned on Logan Webb, who went from Some Guy to Bonafide Stud over 14-plus innings of one-run ball in his first postseason. After stunning the Dodgers with a changeup-heavy selection in Game 1, he mixed in more sinkers and sliders to pretty much stupify everyone except Mookie Betts, who ended up going 4-for-4 on the night with a stolen base.

L.A.’s front office made the collective decision — “from all the way to the tippy top of the Dodgers organization on down,” as manager Dave Roberts put it — to hold back 20-game winner Julio Urías in favor of a couple relievers-cum-openers for a few innings to disrupt the deliberate matchups the Giants had relied on all season to perform like more than the sum of their parts.

Nitpicked before first pitch, the decision ultimately looked smart (or at least fine) because it didn’t backfire, despite several hard-hit balls, and would have launched a thousand tweets calling for Roberts to lose his job if it had.

When Webb’s day was done and his ace status was cemented, the Giants got two outs from Tyler Rogers and then quickly turned to rookie closer Camilo Doval. The Dodgers needed any kind of offense, and so they settled for small ball.

“Brownie, one of our hitting coaches, was like, let's single them to death here in the ninth,” Gavin Lux said after the game of a conversation with Brant Brown.

Aided by a hit-by-pitch and Doval’s decision to stay away from his triple-digit fastball, the strategy worked. The 2019 NL MVP turned into one of this season’s worst qualified hitters, Cody Bellinger smacked the single that drove in the go-ahead run. A .165 hitter this season, Bellinger likely cost his team some wins during the regular season — even just one of which would have given them a shot at home-field advantage in this game.

But it turns out a winner is just a loser who gets a hit at the exact right time. In October, it takes only one to be a hero.

By the time the Dodgers' Matt Beaty made the final out of the top of the ninth, Scherzer was already galloping in from the bullpen. In the days leading up to Game 5, Roberts had downplayed — although not ruled out — the possibility that the three-time Cy Young Award winner would pitch in relief. Scherzer had been ready all along, lobbying for days, offering to appear on short rest or in relief earlier in the series as well, and finally skipping his normal bullpen session after Game 3.

“It's like being a little kid again, you just pitch whenever you get told,” he said gleefully about the grind of October. “And every single day you have a chance to help the team and you go out there and pitch.”

“Knowing you have an ace in the hole is a good feeling,” Roberts said. “I just wanted to try to find the ultimate leverage spot to deploy him.”

San Francisco, CA - October 14: Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer reacts after striking out San Francisco Giants' Wilmer Flores to end game five of the 2021 National League Division Series at Oracle Park on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 in San Francisco, CA. The Dodgers won 2-1. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner in contention for his fourth, tallied his first save in a huge spot to seal NLDS Game 5. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Wally Skalij via Getty Images)

Max effort, minimal margins

The chance to record his first ever save with the season on the line apparently seemed like a big enough moment.

He got an out and the San Francisco crowd groaned. The Giants’ own midseason acquisition, Kris Bryant, reached on an error and a buzz filled Oracle Park. Local folk legend and pinch-hit specialist "Late Night" LaMonte Wade Jr. stepped to the plate and the place roared with anticipation. And then, on a 2-1 count, Scherzer threw a fastball middle in and it felt like 40,000 people readied themselves to erupt as Wade launched the pitch out toward McCovey Cove.

It went foul, not all that close in the end, but close enough to know it could have been different. And the difference might’ve been a millisecond on the swing, or it might have been the Hall of Famer on the mound.

By now you’ve seen how the last out happened: Wilmer Flores checking his swing as much as anyone has ever checked their swing and getting called for going around because that happens sometimes. Game over.

Maybe the Dodgers were just too talented to lose to even the savviest array of role players. I mean really, does Flores get to Scherzer given one more shot anyway? Or maybe the Giants had come too far to lose on anything other than ambiguity.

The bad call on the last out — which, if it inspires any sort of reckoning, let it be about the lack of specificity in the checked-swing rule or the unnecessary prescriptions on what can be reviewed, and not whether we should even have human umpires — is a metaphor. I mean, it was also the last strike of the last out of a Giants season that deserved so much better. But in doing so it epitomized the David and Goliath tension in every heartbreaking baseball season: Overwhelming ability that can be felled by the smallest of margins.

Game 5 between the Dodgers and Giants felt like a study in how precarious any one outcome is in a single contest between such well-matched teams. We were supposed to find out which one deserved to win more. Instead it felt like we learned how unsatisfying it was to see either of them lose.

But let’s go back to Scherzer for a minute. The ace is not infallible — he looked shaky in the wild-card game, gave up the one in a 1-0 loss earlier in the NLDS, and admitted he got away with some bad pitches Thursday night — but he is perhaps the best big-game pitcher in baseball right now. He picked the Dodgers to be winners, and would pick them up and put them on his back to make that happen if they let him.

And yet, he doesn’t take the difficulty of getting there for granted.

After the game, Betts said this was just one step toward their ultimate goal and, as dramatic as the division series had been, it was time to turn the page.

“You can't celebrate until you hold up that World Series trophy,” he said.

And with that, Scherzer had to quibble.

“I'm with Mookie,” he said, “except we can party hard tonight.”

You have to, when the margins between winning and losing are so small.