For as dominant as Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw have been in their respective careers, baseball fans have yet to be treated to a high-stakes duel between the two at the height of their abilities.
In fact, the only time these hurlers started against each other was back in September of 2008 as rookies. In other words, before the Cy Young Awards, All-Star Game appearances, strikeout titles and, in Kershaw’s case, a National League MVP.
That all changes in Game 1 of the NL Division Series. Scherzer and Kershaw, picked five selections apart in the first round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, will finally square off again, this time as two unquestioned aces pitching during the time of the year it matters most.
“It's what you play this game for,” Scherzer said. “You don't measure yourself against the worst; you measure yourself against the best. And I think this is best opponent I could possibly face with the Dodgers and Kershaw throwing.”
“I don't expect for it to be a blowout tomorrow by any means,” Kershaw added.
Look around the playoff field, and it would be tough to find a more compelling pitching matchup than this one. So on the eve of their biggest [duel] to date, both Game 1 starters took turns singing each other’s praises.
“Just a great competitor,” Kershaw said of his Nationals counterpart. “He had an amazing year this year. You know, if not the frontrunner to win the Cy Young, definitely in the top two or three. We know we've got our hands full.”
Indeed, Scherzer is coming off another Cy Young-caliber campaign, going 20-7 with a 2.96 ERA and an MLB-best 284 strikeouts. In his second season with the Nats, the 32-year-old right hander has proven to be the top-line starter the club needed when he signed a seven-year, $210 million contract before the 2015 season.
“It's what I envisioned when I drafted him way back in the day,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo said. “He attacks. He's in attack mode. He's an aggressive pitcher. He's the guy that you want to give the ball to in the most crucial situations.”
Kershaw, meanwhile, was off to another historically great start before missing a large chunk of the year with a back injury. The 28-year-old lefty returned in September in time to make five starts, regaining his strength and finishing the regular season 12-4 with a 1.69 ERA and an impressive 172-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“You have go to up there and be ready to hit because you know he's not going to walk you,” first baseman Clint Robinson said. “You have to go up there and don't let him get away with mistakes. If he makes a mistake pitch, you have to be ready to get all over him and do damage. Because if not, the man has proven over the years to that if he's on, you're not going to hit him.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts put it in more simple terms.
“I'd rather have nobody on the mound tomorrow than Clayton Kershaw,” he said.
Of course, the unpredictability of the postseason is always in play, so there’s a chance the low-scoring affair many expect may not come to fruition. Regardless, pitching matchups rarely get more hyped than this, and the Nats believe they have their man that can lead them deep into October against the opposition’s best.
“This is something you always remember,” Scherzer said. “You want to be in these situations, because this is too much fun, to be able to go up and face a team and pitcher of this caliber.”