ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Max Scherzer has pitched only once since a miserable night in early September that saw the Houston Astros complete an overwhelming three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers.
When the three-time Cy Young Award winner returns to the mound Wednesday night after missing just more than a month because of a muscle strain in his shoulder, the Rangers will be trying to take a 3-0 lead over those same Astros in the AL Championship Series.
“When the first diagnosis was a teres strain, four to six weeks, for one day I was kind of relieved about it,” Scherzer said Tuesday. “And then it’s been a grind to get myself back to this point to be able to go out there and take the ball again. That’s been my mentality this past month.”
Texas, off to a 7-0 postseason start, will be the fifth team Scherzer has pitched for in the playoffs — he is 7-7 with a 3.58 in 27 games with Detroit, Washington, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets. The Rangers acquired the 39-year-old right-hander from New York in a deadline deal in hopes of starts just like this.
Scherzer was dealing with forearm tightness six weeks ago when he allowed seven runs — all on three homers — over three innings in the Astros’ 12-3 win. That wrapped up a series in which Houston hit 16 homers and outscored Texas 39-10. He exited after 5 1/3 scoreless innings six days later, on Sept. 12 at Toronto, before going on the injured list because of the shoulder strain.
Manager Bruce Bochy said Scherzer threw nearly 70 pitches in a simulated game last week, and that will be the initial target Wednesday night.
“He’s been working pretty good, so he can get us at least in that area, if not more,” Bochy said. “The guy is hungry to get out there and pitch. He wants to be part of this.”
Scherzer, whose last start against the Astros was a matchup of three-time Cy Young winners, said he’s healthier physically than he was then when he faced two-time teammate Justin Verlander.
“But I don’t know what my pitch count is going to be,” Scherzer said. “Going in the regular season, you build up for 100-plus pitches. Right now I don’t know what the number is in the playoffs.”
Cristian Javier starts this time for Houston, with the 26-year-old right-hander making his fourth start in 16 postseason appearances. He is 5-1 with a 1.91 ERA in playoff games, including five scoreless innings to win Game 3 of the AL Division Series at Minnesota last week.
“There’s no moment too big for him,” catcher Martín Maldonado said.
In his only start against Texas this season, Javier allowed eight runs and nine hits over 4 1/3 innings in the finale of the Astros’ only other series in Arlington, when they won 12-11 in July.
Going into only their second home game in these playoffs, the wild-card Rangers’ seven-game winning streak matches Houston’s start last October on its way to winning the World Series. That is one short of the MLB record for best postseason start, set by Kansas City in 2014. Those Royals lost a seven-game World Series when San Francisco won its third title in a five-year span under Bochy.
This is the fifth time since the All-Star break the Rangers have won at least six games in a row, but they also also had four losing streaks of at least three games in that span, including an eight-game skid. They had a 20-game stretch in September when they lost four games in a row, won six, lost four and then won six more.
That up-and-down stretch began with that home series that allowed the Astros to take sole possession of the AL West for the first time this year and dropped Texas a season-high three games behind the division lead.
The Astros have never overcome an 0-2 deficit to win a seven-game series but were in a similar situation when they last got to Globe Life Field for the Labor Day series opener. They had just been swept at home by the Yankees, but then set a franchise record for the most homers in any three-game span, and matched a major league mark with at least five homers in three consecutive games.
Houston already had the head-to-head tiebreaker and finished 9-4 in the season series but needed every one of those wins to be able to match Texas at 90 victories on the final day of the regular season and put that tiebreaker into play. This time, the Astros need to win at least two of three games to extend the series and get back home.
“All I know, certain places that you go you feel very comfortable as a hitter offensively. And I know our guys see the ball well here,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “The way we look at it, we were one hit in each game away from winning those games. So we could be 2-0, but we’re not, but it gives comfort in the fact that we know how close we are at getting it together.”