WASHINGTON — In one sense, Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole have already faced each other in the World Series, with the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros’ respective aces opposing each other on the mound in Game 1.
But in Game 5 on Sunday, with Scherzer back on the mound for the Nationals and Cole pitching again for the Astros, the right-handers will have to bat against each other with the series having shifted to Nationals Park and thus National League rules. Although Cole began his career in the NL with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he’s spent the prior two years in the American League with Houston, possibly giving Scherzer an advantage in that area.
“But then again, we are pretty crappy hitters,” Scherzer said before Saturday’s Game 4, “so I don't think it's that big of an advantage.”
It certainly doesn’t help that they’ll each have to bat against one of the toughest right-handed pitchers in baseball. Scherzer, limited to 27 starts because of back problems, posted a 2.92 ERA and has a 2.16 mark in the postseason. In the regular season, Cole went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and struck out 326 batters, the most since Randy Johnson in 2002. But he’s not necessarily looking forward to stepping into the box Sunday.
“In regards to hitting against Max Scherzer,” Cole said, “I think I fall in line with pretty much everyone else that it's probably not the most enjoyable experience of all time.”
Their first World Series meeting went to Scherzer and Washington, though the Astros wore down the three-time Cy Young Award winner early and limited him to five innings, while Cole, the former first overall pick who could be heading for his first Cy Young, suffered a loss for the first time in five months.
The two teams representing their respective leagues in the World Series arguably feature the best starting pitching either circuit has to offer, with no team paying its top three starters more than they do. With either Cole or teammate Justin Verlander bound to receive the AL Cy Young Award next month, there are a combined six Cy Young Awards between these teams’ rotations.
Their effectiveness comes in a year when more home runs were hit than any season in major league history.
“I guess it makes me appreciate it just more because I don't get to see it very often,” Cole said. “… I've had a fun time watching the series unfold so far.”
Neither team’s manager, Washington’s Davey Martinez and Houston’s A.J. Hinch, elected to use them on short rest, with Scherzer possibly a candidate to pitch in relief in Game 3 while Cole, who has never pitched on short rest, held back for Game 5 despite the Astros possibly going with a bullpen game Saturday.
“The minute you decide to go a guy on three days' rest, you get bombarded with information on how it's a bad idea,” Hinch explained. “Just over time it has not proven to be an effective philosophy. … Once you start that in a seven-game series, you can't stop. In reference to Gerrit Cole today, if we started Gerrit Cole today, then what are you going to do tomorrow in a Game 5? It's easy, let's start [Verlander]. Now I've got two back-to-back three-day starts, and then we have a day off, which everybody assumes recharges everybody's battery to full. I'm going to tell you it does not; it's just one day. Now you have a Game 6.
“I like the idea when it works. I hate it when it doesn't. And I don't get to know on the front end.”
The first question Scherzer was asked in his pregame news conference Saturday was why starting pitchers no longer pitch Games 1, 4 and 7 in these series like they did “a long time ago.”
“If I remember correctly, didn't Corey Kluber do that [in 2017]? So I guess it's still possible,” Scherzer snapped back, his answer complete.
Sunday could mark the final time either he or Cole pitches in the series. But Scherzer has already pitched in relief this postseason, and Cole directly mentioned the possibility he could come out of the bullpen should the World Series reach a Game 7.
“You just never know,” Cole said. “You're always just so inspired to get in the game and try to contribute any way you can. You just want to be prepared for a situation like that. I would just rather anticipate having my card called as opposed to not, so especially when you're on this stage. This is a blast.
“... I hope I go home with nothing left in the tank. So whether [Sunday] is the last time I pitch or I get the opportunity to pitch another time after that, I just hope I'm just absolutely dog tired by the time I get home.”
Scherzer, too, admitted the approach to this time of year is different, especially as 35-year-old. He said the back issues that landed him on the injured list earlier year will likely need to be addressed in the offseason, and he has been “dreaming up” what he might do in December and January to handle them.
But for now, his focus is on Sunday night and whatever a matchup, and at-bats, against Cole have in store for him.