This was not a raw, gray, rainy day for Yankees fans to be angry at their team. Over nearly eight innings, this was a raw, gray, rainy day for them to be angry at the baseball overlords who decided, in 1893, that the pitcher’s mound should be moved back to 60 feet, 6 inches.
Had those overlords moved it back to, say, 66 feet, the Yankees might have had a prayer against Max Scherzer 128 years later.
“You got 110 pitches today,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez had told him. Scherzer gave him 109 before he was removed in the eighth, before Martinez approached the mound and Scherzer said, “Yep, it’s time.”
Scherzer struck out 14 batters and allowed just two hits, one walk and one run — on a Kyle Higashioka homer — before heading to the dugout and liberating the Yankees from the holy hell he had rained down on them. It was a day to celebrate Scherzer’s greatness as he joined Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez as the only pitchers to deliver at least 100 games of double-figure strikeouts. The Yankees might as well have been swinging broomsticks or Wiffle-ball bats up there in this man-against-boys encounter.
But there was no Mad Max sequel coming out of the Washington bullpen, not even close. So when the game was over, after Gleyber Torres had tied it in the ninth with an RBI single and then won it in the 11th with a bases-loaded dribbler against a five-man infield, the Yankees were in a much better place than the 36-year-old pitcher who had dominated them. After enduring a 2-hour, 25-minute rain delay, they had shown October toughness against an October pitcher in an October-like game played in October-like conditions.
All of which, you know, might be the first encouraging sign of what’s to come in the postseason, assuming the Yankees make it there.
This wasn’t necessarily the first sign of life from this big-budget 17-16 team. Though the Yankees lost an opportunity to sweep the Astros when Jose Altuve went deep Thursday, they still showed some fortitude over those three days. The Stadium crowds demanded blood, at least figuratively if not literally, as payback for the Astros’ cheating ways, and the Yankees more or less delivered by winning the series, marking the first time this year they really gave their fans what they wanted.
Saturday presented a different kind of opportunity — a chance to prove they could beat a living legend on the mound, an ace who spent the day becoming one of the 20 most prolific strikeout pitchers of all time. Scherzer is not an exceptionally large presence, but he is an intimidating force all the same. His glare is made more forbidding by his signature physical trait — heterochromia iridis. He is a future Hall of Famer with multiple Cy Young Awards, multiple no-hitters and multiple-colored eyes.
“I’ve always celebrated it,” Scherzer once said of having one brown eye and one blue eye. “Whether you like it or not, that’s who I am.”
He stared down the Yankees something good, retiring 13 straight and 14 out of 15 before Martinez came to get him. It had been 15 years since the Yankees had played a game featuring starters who had won more than one Cy Young Award, and though Corey Kluber was damn good, Scherzer was much better. In the end, the Yankees weren’t trying to beat him as much as they were trying to outlast him, like the dynasty teams often tried to do against Pedro Martinez.
It worked. Aaron Judge and Torres managed great at-bats against the unraveling Brad Hand in the ninth, staying within themselves and going the other way. Mike Ford, of all people, honored Aaron Boone’s questionable faith in him and abandoned his sacrifice-bunt attempts to snap a 1-for-23 streak with another opposite-field hit that made it 3-3 in the 10th. Justin Wilson was lights out in the 11th before Torres sent everyone home with his slow roller off Tanner Rainey.
The Yankees refused to fall back under .500, and Scherzer, the perfectionist, was left to blame himself for that hanging slider to Higashioka in the third.
“To me, that’s the difference in the game,” he said. “If I can execute that pitch better, maybe we win the game. … You always have to be accountable for the mistakes you make.”
Boone called Scherzer “a load” who forced the Yankees to “try to crawl our way back into the game.” They crawled. They scratched. They won an ugly game against a beautiful pitcher.
Yeah, it’s only Game 33 out of 162. But thanks to Scherzer, the whole experience felt a lot more profound than that.