SAN FRANCISCO — It was grueling, exhilarating, intoxicating, and bizarre.
We’re not talking about the epic National League Division Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, but pitcher Max Scherzer’s performance and behavior Thursday night after the Dodgers’ 2-1 victory, winning the fifth and final game of the best-of-five series.
Scherzer, who has pitched 432 games in his career, including the playoffs, but never recorded a save, sprinted to the mound for the ninth inning. He recorded three outs, and jumped off the mound when first-base umpire Gabe Morales called Wilmer Flores out on a game-ending checked swing. He sprayed champagne with his teammates in the cramped visiting clubhouse. Ripped off his shirt in the celebration.
And then, with most of his teammates still in the clubhouse, ran around the infield laughing with his 2- and 3-year-old daughters, stepping on each base together, sitting on the Oracle Park pitching mound, and savoring one of the most glorious moments in this riveting Dodger-Giants rivalry.
It was a seven-month heavyweight fight all season, with the two teams each having 109 victories entering the night, but needing the 110th to advance to the National League Championship Series. It was only fitting that it came down to the ninth inning when a .165 hitter, Cody Bellinger, produced the game-winning hit, and a three-time Cy Young award winner saved the first game of his career.
“Wow, wow, it’s crazy, I did it,’’ Scherzer said on the field. “I knew it was going to be deafening out there, that I wouldn’t be able to hear or think anything. I tried to use the crowd to my advantage.’’
He retired Brandon Crawford on a fly out to left field for the first out. Kris Bryant got on when Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner dropped the ball out of his glove. He struck out LaMonte Wade Jr. And then struck out Flores on a check swing in which the Giants insisted he didn’t go around, leaving Scherzer screaming into the night as the sellout crowd of 42,275 groaned in disbelief.
And just like that, he played an integral role in the historic Dodger-Giants rivalry, where he can expect to be vociferously booed for the rest of his career when he comes to San Francisco.
“Knowing you have an ace in the hole is a good feeling,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts after the game. “I just wanted to try to find the ultimate leverage spot to deploy him, to use him. Just kind of how the game played out, it just made a lot of sense.”
“These two cities don’t like each other,’’ Scherzer said. “You have two fanbases that don’t like each other. And you have players that respect the hell out of each other, play the game right, and want to beat the crap out of each other.
“That’s what makes sports awesome. The season they had, and the fight they had in this series, it was just so fun to be part of it.’’
The Dodgers, who planned to spend the night partying in San Francisco, will travel Friday to Atlanta where they will open the National League Championship Series in a rematch from a year ago.
The Giants, who won a franchise-record 107 victories during the regular season, and were up 2 games to 1 in this series, will go home for the winter.
The Giants can blame sheer bad luck, the check-swing call, or even the fact they had to open the playoffs against a 106-win team, but the reality is that their hitting disappeared at the worst time.
The Giants hit just .182 in the series with only nine extra-base hits, scoring four or fewer runs in each game.
“You get into the postseason, you’re going to face really kick-ass pitching,’’ Giants manager Gabe Kapler said, “and then you’re going to need to be on your A-game offensively. I actually think we put good at-bats together, and we just weren’t able to get the job done.’’
It’s not like the Dodgers were ripping the cover off the ball, but they had Mookie Betts on their side, who was a one-man hitting show. He went four-for-four Thursday, batted .450 and drove in four runs in the series and feeling like he was part of something awfully special, just like his days in Boston playing against the Yankees.
“That Yankees-Red Sox, man, that’s mean,’’ Betts said. “This is definitely different. Maybe the different coasts. East Coast people are different than West Coast. I don’t know.
“But it’s definitely lot of fun to be a part of a rivalry like this, and just being a part of it, being able to contribute in it, is just fun.’’
And although he was late to the party, not joining the Dodgers until the July 30 trade deadline, perhaps no one had more fun than Scherzer.
“To just fight all year long that, and have 107 wins like they did, that’s just nuts,’’ Scherzer said. “They played unbelievable baseball, man. They would not lose at the end. We thought we’d win the division, but they would not lose. That just shows how great of a team they are.’’
If it weren’t for Scherzer, of course, the Giants would still be rolling. He was the difference-maker. He was the one who dominated the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card game. He allowed just one run in seven innings in Game 3. And he was the one who told Roberts that he could pitch Thursday, running down to the bullpen in the fourth inning, pacing for four innings, coming in, and making sure the Giants had no more late night magic left in their season.
“Nothing was going to stop me from winning the game,’’ Scherzer said. “You got to be confident. I’m just here to win. I love winning. And I love winning with this team.’’
Well, after pitching seven innings Monday, and an inning Thursday, could he possibly turn around and pitch Saturday in Game 1 of the NLCS against Atlanta?
“We’ll party tonight,’’ he said, “and figure it out tomorrow. We beat this team, so we deserve to party hard.
“Just win, baby, just win!’’
That’s all the Dodgers do is win, winning eight consecutive division titles, including three pennants and a World Series title. Even in a year they don’t win the division, they still win the division series over their rivals.
“It was a mini-World Series,’’ Dodgers left fielder Gavin Lux said, “just from the fans’ standpoint, the rivalry. It’s what you want as a fan. Those guys, they are really good over there, really good.’’
It may be the start of something special, with these two teams expected to go toe-to-toe next year, and meet up again in October.
“Our expectation every year,’’ Roberts says, “is to play through October.’’
The Giants plan to be there once again, too.
They will next see one another in 223 days, on May 3, at Dodger Stadium, in the first of 19 games.
Before you know it, it will be October again, where these two powerhouses could be staging a glorious rematch.
“This,’’ Giants pitcher Logan Webb said, “won’t be the last time we play them in the playoffs.’’
Who would dare argue?
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dodgers’ Max Scherzer’s first career save puts lid on NLDS thriller