WASHINGTON, DC – Max Scherzer walked stiffly into the interview room, a bandage on the back of the Washington star pitcher's neck telegraphing trouble.
He had hoped to beat the Astros for the second time this week, to give the Nationals a 3-2 World Series lead heading back to Houston.
Instead, he had to tell his team he couldn't pitch and Washington started Joe Ross in Sunday night's matchup against Gerrit Cole. Ross gave up two-run homers to Yordan Álvarez and Carlos Correa, lasting five innings in a 7-1 loss that moved Houston within a win of its second title in three years.
Scherzer is not sure whether his season over.
"I woke up this morning completely locked up. I couldn't do anything, couldn't even dress myself," Scherzer said, needing to turn his entire body to answer questions. "I had to have my wife help me."
Scherzer's switch from starter to spectator did not go over well with Mad Max, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. He views himself as a baseball bulldog, able to will his 35-year-old body through any obstacle.
"I've pitched through so much crap in my career that that would be easy to pitch through at this point," he said. "This is literally impossible to do anything with."
He first felt pain by the right side of his neck and trapezius muscle a few days ago. He hoped the training staff would get him in position to pitch.
"Usually when I get chiropractic adjustments, that usually really helps me out with these neck spasms," he said. "I've dealt with them in the past different times where I just need little adjustments here and there. And that's where I thought I was at a couple days ago — if I just do my normal treatment and get adjustments that I could be able to heed this off and keep it from being blowing up on me."
Then he woke up Sunday morning and realized "this is just a little thing that turned into a big thing that turned into a giant thing."
"I couldn't get out of bed," he said. "I had to just basically fall out of bed and pick myself up with my left arm."
He had a cortisone shot to alleviate nerve irritation in the area of his C5 and C6 vertebrae. Scherzer hopes to be available if the Nationals can force a Game 7 on Wednesday night in Texas.
"The doctors told me it's going to take at least 48 hours for this to kick in," he said. "It was one of the things that was on the table yesterday. We didn't want to go down that route and take the injection yesterday because we thought we found a way to be able to maintain everything yesterday, potentially make the start today."
Washington manager Dave Martinez made the announcement 3½ hours before the first pitch. Scherzer is 3-0 with a 2.16 ERA in four postseason starts and a Division Series relief appearance, allowing two runs over five innings while throwing 112 pitches to beat Cole in Tuesday's opener.
"Max, obviously he pitched with a broken nose," Martinez said. "When he comes in and says he's hurt this bad, he's hurt."
Scherzer and the Nationals maintained this injury is not related to the bursitis in his right scapula and a strained rhomboid muscle in the right side of his upper back that limited the right-hander to one start between July 6 and Aug. 22. Scherzer was 11-7 with a 2.92 ERA in 27 starts, ending a streak of six straight seasons with more than 200 innings.
"The dangers of pitching tonight was that something seriously, seriously could go wrong," he said. "But at the same time, I can't pick up my arm right now."
Game 6 starter Stephen Strasburg threw a bullpen session on Saturday and was not an option to face the Astros on three days' rest
Washington became the first team to use five starters in the Series since the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies. Ross had pitched just once in the postseason, throwing 19 pitches over two scoreless innings Friday's 4-1 loss.
A 26-year-old right-hander, Ross was 4-4 with a 5.48 ERA in 27 appearances during the regular season, including 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA in nine starts. He was told on Saturday there was a chance he would pitch and was awake in bed Sunday — he didn't get up until 2 p.m. — when he got a call from pitching coach Paul Menhart telling him to be ready to start. He received a text from Scherzer five minutes later with the same message.
Fans cheered as he walked to the bullpen before the game.
"Definitely noticed the kind of roar, I guess, as I went out on the field, which is pretty cool," Ross said. "I would say probably louder than any previous start that I've had."
"Sinker down and away. I thought it was a good pitch — a pitcher's pitch," Ross said.
He blamed himself for Correa's drive, which made it 4-0 in the fourth.
"Hanging slider, two strikes," Ross lamented.
Martinez, ever optimistic, said he was pleased.
"I said, 'You did a great job,'" the manager recalled telling him, before adding: "Hey, you need to be ready to pitch in a few days again."