- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2016

That first time in the Bronx, Max Scherzer tried to put a governor on his emotions — an effort that ran counter to the free-wheeling ferocity that had made him an ace. Even in college, Scherzer was a boisterous, snorting bull on the mound, stomping around, digging his hooves in the dirt.

He didn’t want to be like that, pitching for Detroit in Yankee Stadium in the 2011 postseason. He, of course, had dreamed this dream as a kid. Being on a mound in the playoffs, surrounded by noise and hype and legacy. But instead of letting the moment carry him, Scherzer tried to harness it, pin it down and moderate it in a dictatorial way.

Before he was out of the first inning, he’d walked two batters — and had come to a sharp realization about the attempt to dial down his emotions: “It doesn’t work.”

Emotions, Scherzer said, are a crucial part of the game.

“You’ve got to use the adrenaline and emotion of the game to your advantage. You got to go out there and be aggressive and appreciate what’s going on. You don’t shy away from this moment, you’ve got to rise to it.”

Nats’ fans, tormented by first-round playoff exits, are hoping Scherzer’s killer instinct makes the difference for a team that, despite a rash of injuries, is still considered one of the favorites to win the World Series (Las Vegas has Washington at 7-1, behind only Boston and Texas, at 5-1, and the Chicago Cubs, at 7-4).

Friday afternoon will be Scherzer’s first chance with the Nationals to employ his lessons-learned approach to playoff baseball. He’ll go to the mound for Game 1 of the National League Division Series as the favorite for this season’s Cy Young award trailed by the lyrics of “All the Way Up” and opposed by Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation.

Kershaw has used a 93-mph fastball, veering slider and looping curveball to devastating effect. He has won three Cy Youngs awards in the last five years. The two seasons he did not win, he finished second and third, respectively. Being based in Los Angeles and throwing from the left side conjures up an inevitable comparison for Kershaw: He’s Sandy Koufax reborn 50 years later.

Kershaw started this season in hard-to-fathom fashion, even for someone of his ilk. He threw 121 innings. He struck 145 batters. He walked nine. Somehow, the assumed Cy Young award winner had improved. That’s why his midseason back injury was a sad event for those who did not have to face him. Kershaw was not in a major league game between June 26 and Sept. 9. The Dodgers survived, then welcomed his precision back when pushing into the playoffs.

But even the most decorated can be crippled by the heft of the moment. Kershaw’s regular-season dominance has not followed him into the postseason. He has a 4.59 ERA in 13 playoff appearances. Kershaw’s inability to control the postseason the way he does the regular season remains an eternal head-scratcher. With each new playoff chance, Kershaw expects to be his diabolical self, not an also-ran.

“I think in the past I’ve definitely felt that pressure more,” Kershaw said. “But this year’s been a little bit different for me, just as far as having to watch on the sidelines for two months. Understanding how good our team is; you know, I think it’s really kind of hit home for me a little bit as I’ve come back that I can definitely be a part of this and definitely help and definitely be a factor in winning. But I don’t have to be the factor.

“We have so many guys that can do so many different things that it’s not all on me.”

October has also jostled Scherzer. His 3.73 postseason ERA is not far from his career ERA of 3.66. Though he twice has been clobbered in the playoffs. Most recently, he allowed five runs in 7 ⅓ innings in 2014 when pitching for the Detroit Tigers.

Scherzer tries to maintain the duality of being an informed jock. He can throw fastballs 97 mph. He also crafts and refines, absorbing information on tendencies to first formulate a plan, then pivoting when necessary. Since entering the major leagues in 2008, Scherzer has catapulted himself from a fastball-heavy thrower to a four-pitch thinker still backed by superior velocity.

In the last two seasons, Scherzer began throwing a cutter to fend off left-handed batters, the men who trouble him most at the plate. His ability to control left-handed batters could determine the series’ outcome because Los Angeles comes to the District with vast left-handed might. As a team, it finished the regular season with the second-best batting average against right-handed pitching. The Dodgers were only outdone in the category by the Colorado Rockies, who receive an asterisk in any assessment because of their offense-boosting home park.

“I feel like that’s really become a strength of mine — being able to handle left-handed hitters,” Scherzer said. “It’s not perfect. I’m not sitting here saying I’m the greatest thing ever. But, I’m much better than I was earlier in my career and was a few years ago. Maybe throw a cut slider at them, a curveball, changeup, fastball and that really allows me to change up the sequences each time through the lineup and try to exploit — left-handed hitters have different types of swings. I feel like I’m able to at least match up with most of them at a better clip than I was in the past.”

October glory has eluded both organizations for decades. The Nationals have been to the playoffs three times since baseball returned to the District in 2005. They have never moved beyond the first round. Los Angeles is still trying to replicate 1988, the year of Orel Hershiser, an improbable Kirk Gibson home run and a sixth World Series win. The Dodgers have stalled in the National League Championship Series, or earlier, since.

First up to continue stifling the other’s postseason push are Kershaw and Scherzer. Both come with superior credentials complicated by challenged playoff outings. They can’t undo past failures. They can only try to twist their playoffs legacies starting again Friday.

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