Max Scherzer was nearly perfect for the Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday. With his nine strikeouts of the San Diego Padres in an 8-0 victory at Dodger Stadium, he became the 19th pitcher in Major League Baseball history to reach the 3,000 whiff plateau. He needed six and is now sitting at 3,003.
Next up, Clayton Kershaw is scheduled to start for the Los Angeles Dodgers Monday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium for the first time since July 3, finally recovered from a sore left forearm.
Trevor Bauer won’t pitch again for the Dodgers this year in the midst of a controversy over an alleged sexual assault case involving a woman he met over the internet. He hasn’t pitched for them since June 28.
Despite the loss of some key starting pitchers, the Dodgers are still in the thick of the National League West pennant race, trailing the division-leading San Francisco Giants by just 2 1/2 games after sweeping a three-game series while holding the Padres to four runs.
The absence of Kershaw and Bauer hasn’t been easy on the balance sheet. The cost for the club for partial seasons from both pitchers is $69 million of the club’s record $267.3 million player payroll. They paid Bauer a base of $28 million and a signing bonus of $10 million to make 17 starts.
Kershaw has earned $31 million to so far make 18 starts.
Those absences only add to the list of injuries to fellow Dodger starters Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin. An injured Danny Duffy was obtained at the June 30 trade deadline and won’t pitch for them this season because of a strained left flexor tendon. Only Walker Buehler has pitched through the entire season so far.
Still, the Dodgers have weathered it all, winning 91 games thus far and chasing the Giants with 18 games left to go, although the Giants with 93 victories and the best record in baseball just keep winning.
“The pitching has been unbelievable all year, whether it’s been the starters or the bullpen,” team president Stan Kasten told Sportico at Dodger Stadium this past weekend. “It kept us within a couple of wins of the best record in the sport. And it should be an exciting last couple of weeks.”
The Dodgers still have the No. 1-rated pitching staff among the 30 Major League Baseball teams with a 2.95 ERA, 1,427 strikeouts and opponents hitting .207 against them. Buehler and Urias have combined to go 31-6 with the left-handed Urias leading MLB at 17-3.
They added Scherzer at the deadline and he leads the league with a 2.17 ERA and has been 6-0 with a 0.88 ERA in eight starts since coming west from the Washington Nationals along with infielder Trea Turner. On Sunday he had a perfect game going with one out in the eighth before Eric Hosmer broke it up with a solid double beyond Mookie Betts in right field. It was San Diego’s only hit and base runner of the game as Scherzer came out after eight innings.
“It’s an awesome accomplishment, an awesome milestone. I love strikeouts,” Scherzer said about becoming the first pitcher in history to record his 3,000th K in a Dodgers uniform. “To me, it’s just a testament to my durability.”
The Dodgers are paying Scherzer $10 million prorated of his $34.6 million salary and he’s been worth every penny of it. At 37, he’ll be a free agent in November and will certainly earn another big pay day.
Meanwhile, there will be other important games in the weeks ahead.
If their streak of eight NL West titles in a row should come to an end, they Dodgers will host an NL Wild Card Game on Oct. 5 against the survivor of the Padres and Cincinnati Reds, among others.
Manager Dave Roberts will be in the envious position of having Scherzer start the Wild Card Game at Dodger Stadium, and if they win, saving Buehler and Urias to pitch the first two games of a best-of-five NL Division Series at Oracle Park in San Francisco.
He could also start the 14-3 Buehler in the Wild Card Game and save Scherzer to open against the Giants.
“That’s not my decision,” Scherzer said when asked if he had any preference. “That’s the manager’s decision. I’ll go out there and do the best I can no matter what the circumstances.”
Roberts said that decision hasn’t been made and won’t be until the Dodgers line up their starting pitching plans with about 10 days to go in the season.
The glint in his eye indicated that in a one-game play-in for the main three rounds of the playoffs and a chance to win another World Series, he’d be foolish not to go with Scherzer. After all, that’s why they obtained the three-time Cy Young Award-winning right-hander.
“We’re trying to win as many games as we can in the last three weeks of the season,” Roberts said. “I don’t think we can go wrong in either situation, but I just don’t know right now how it’s going to play out. Max or Walker, we’re in a pretty good spot.”
Of course, health will have a lot to do with it. Scherzer has had a balky triceps and hamstring at times this season, while Buehler, a former Tommy John elbow surgery survivor, has remained strong and healthy, making every one of his 28 starts.
Kershaw is another story.
He’s made only 28 starts the last two seasons, 10 during last year’s abbreviated by COVID 60-game season and four more during the postseason. He was 2-0 in his club’s six-game victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series, finally shunning his reputation as a marginal big-game playoff pitcher.
But back, shoulder and forearm injuries have limited his effectiveness the last few seasons as his velocity has declined.
Roberts said he’s anticipating using Kershaw four innings against the D-backs with the hope he’ll remain healthy enough to slot into the postseason picture.
Scherzer, Buehler, Urias and Kershaw would give the Dodgers a formidable playoff rotation, especially if they can oust the first-place Giants and host an NLDS.
“Kershaw will get either four or five more starts,” Roberts said. “I think we can get him back to about 100 pitches in his last start of the season. That’s the goal.”
Kershaw is 33, and there’s a chance Dodgers fans could be seeing him for the last time in a Los Angeles uniform after 14 seasons. He’s also a free agent at the end of the postseason and said earlier this year he intends to continue pitching.
His future status is one of a number of decisions the Dodgers have to make as veterans Scherzer, Duffy, Corey Seager, Chris Taylor, Kenley Jansen and Albert Pujols all are eligible to join Kershaw in free agency.
The Dodgers have plenty of money to do whatever they wish. They lead baseball with a home attendance of 2,375,963, an average of 33,000 skewed by the fact that they didn’t play in front of a full house of 52,000 at Dodger Stadium until mid-June because of coronavirus California health and safety codes.
Bauer’s status is out of the team’s hands.
He will remain on administrative leave with full pay through remainder of the season and postseason. MLB and the MLB Players Association have agreed he won’t pitch again until his legal situation and league eligibility are thoroughly investigated.
Formal criminal charges are in the hands of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, while MLB conducts its own inquiry through its collectively bargained domestic violence program.
There don’t have to be criminal pleas or guilty findings for MLB to act, and if past is predicate, Bauer will probably face a season-long suspension without pay in 2022.
The last two players sanctioned under the program were Domingo German of the New York Yankees, who was suspended for 81 games in 2020, and free agent Sam Dyson, who was nailed with a 162-game suspension this season.
The Dodgers signed Bauer as a free agent last offseason for three years at $102 million.
Though the Dodgers are mum about it, there’s a good chance they might eat any of the outstanding money post-suspension, and he’ll never pitch for them again. They’ll owe him $32 million if he’s suspended for the 2022 season.
“I don’t see that this has changed anything from how we’ve gone about it,” Roberts said when asked about Bauer’s situation during a video call. “That’s more the legal side. From the baseball side, I don’t think it’s affected any of the guys in the clubhouse.”
Asked if he expected Bauer to play for the Dodgers again, Roberts added: “I have no idea. I’m just focusing on the guys who are in the room and winning tonight. I just haven’t given any thought to that.”