Max Scherzer, Los Angeles Dodgers finish off San Francisco Giants in Game 5 thriller to advance to NLCS

SAN FRANCISCO -- Max Scherzer came charging out of the bullpen like he was being chased. He came on so strong there was some question as to whether he left early, a false start, as if he viewed his 14 years in the big leagues as simply a prelude to this moment.

At some point after -- or maybe even slightly before -- Wilmer Flores stepped on first base to retire Matt Beaty for the final out of the top of the ninth inning, the door to the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen flew open and here he came, this raging man hell-bent on doing something he'd never done before: save a baseball game.

"Flores touched first base, and it felt like Scherz was halfway to the mound," Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts said afterward. He laughed and looked to his right, where Scherzer sat, wearing a smile that didn't appear to connect to the rest of his face.

The Dodgers are, once again, in the National League Championship Series, and their 2-1 win in Game 5 of the division series against the San Francisco Giants at Oracle Park was punctuated by the strong presence of Scherzer, who set the Giants down in the ninth and then proceeded to engulf his teammates in a series of hugs notable for their ferocity.

Scherzer started and pitched well in Game 3, a 1-0 Giants win, and he arrived at the ballpark on Thursday determined to get on the mound one more time. He played catch about three hours before the game and pronounced himself ready.

"No question I was ready," he said. "I told them I was hot. I knew my arm felt great, so if you want it, you got it."

In the fourth inning, Scherzer headed for the bullpen, even though he knew he wouldn't be used until the late innings, if at all. He went down there, he said, "to get comfortable, feel what it was like, be with the boys." Asked what he and the boys talked about, Scherzer said, "You know -- baseball talk. Fantasy football trades."

There's a lot of pent-up energy inside Scherzer, and there's an outside chance he might have run out there for the ninth regardless of whom manager Dave Roberts called upon.

"I just went down there and I knew -- somehow and some way -- the game was going to get to me," Scherzer said. He threw 13 pitches, 11 for strikes, the most memorable being the final one. With two outs and Kris Bryant at first base, Scherzer threw an 0-2 slider to Flores, who appeared to check his swing but was called out by first-base umpire Gabe Morales.

"I didn't get a good look at it," Scherzer said, diplomatically. "I knew I needed to throw a good slider in that situation. I got it, and I just looked down to first base and saw he went."

The conversation before the game centered on how the Dodgers were going to begin the game; their plan to start 20-game winner Julio Urias changed at some point Wednesday night, when Roberts texted Giants manager Gabe Kapler -- "a courtesy text," Kapler called it -- that he was changing it up and going with reliever Corey Knebel as an opener.

When it was over, the conversation shifted to how the Dodgers ended the game, with Scherzer, a guaranteed Hall of Famer, coming on in relief in a decisive postseason game like so many Hall of Fame starters before him.

"Knowing you have, I guess, an ace in the hole is a good feeling," Roberts said. "I just wanted to try to find the ultimate leverage spot to deploy him. Just how the game played out, it made a lot of sense."

After the game, Scherzer roamed the infield wearing green ski goggles, a T-shirt, shorts and shower shoes. His two little daughters were running the bases, and he chased them around much more casually than he had trod that same turf 45 minutes earlier.

"That's nuts out there [in the ninth], but I just wanted to stay within the moment," he said. "I knew it was going to go deafening, that I wasn't going to be able to hear or think anything and that I just needed to stay within myself, use the crowd to my advantage but don't over-pursue the situation. Just don't do too much. To me, the postseason is like being a little kid again. You pitch when you get told. It's a lot like being a 12-year-old again."

Roberts indicated after the game that Scherzer will start Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday in Atlanta. Scherzer was less committal, shrugging off the question with a comment about seeing how his arm responds in the morning. He was far more certain about his immediate plans, though: "We can party hard tonight."