ATLANTA -- Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler played catch simultaneously at Dodger Stadium moments before a cross-country flight back to Atlanta, and an understanding was reached. Over the course of the four prior days, Scherzer struggled to get past his typical day-after-start fatigue. Come Friday morning, Scherzer's arm was still lagging behind Buehler's, even though Scherzer lined up ahead of him in the rotation. It prompted the decision to start Buehler against the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday night, accounting for his second short-rest start of this postseason, and allowing Scherzer to receive an additional day of rest.
"I know Max wants to take the baseball," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, "but his arm's not allowing him."
Scherzer pitched the ninth inning in Game 5 of the NL Division Series on Oct. 14, closing out the San Francisco Giants and sending the Dodgers into the penultimate round, then was pushed back to NLCS Game 2 to allow for more rest. He said after that start, which took place Sunday, that his arm was "dead." The 37-year-old right-hander still hasn't fully recovered, but he played catch once again at Truist Park on Saturday afternoon and later told reporters that he was dealing with a prolonged version of "general muscle soreness," not any tangible injury.
Scherzer, a free agent at season's end, also told reporters he believes he "turned a corner" stretching out to 90 feet on Friday and noticed increased improvement when he did the same on Saturday. Roberts said he is "very, very confident" Scherzer will start Game 7 if the Dodgers win their eighth consecutive elimination game, a streak that dates back to last season and stands as the third longest in postseason history.
"What he will be able to give us, and how long, I don't know the answer," Roberts said of Scherzer. "I don't think anybody knows. But as far as him taking the baseball tomorrow, if we put ourselves in that position, I feel very confident."
Buehler, who will oppose Braves right-hander Ian Anderson on Saturday, started on only three days' rest for the first time in his career when the Dodgers were facing elimination against the Giants in Game 4 of the NLDS and allowed only one run in 4 1/3 innings. He then took the ball with six days' rest in NLCS Game 3 on Tuesday -- four days' rest is standard for starting pitchers -- and struggled, allowing nine baserunners and recording only 11 outs. Later, Buehler, 27, firmly dismissed any concerns that his unconventional pitching schedule played a factor.
The Dodgers have already lost third baseman Justin Turner (hamstring) and late-inning reliever Joe Kelly (biceps) in this series. They are also without first baseman Max Muncy (elbow) and longtime ace Clayton Kershaw (forearm), both of whom suffered injuries during the final weekend of the regular season. The Dodgers entered the postseason with a three-man starting rotation consisting of Scherzer, Buehler and Julio Urias, the latter of whom struggled in his Game 4 start on Wednesday -- his third appearance in a span of six days.
Starting anyone outside of Buehler on Saturday would have morphed Game 6 into a bullpen game, made more difficult by the fact that the Dodgers also staged a bullpen game in Thursday's Game 5. The Dodgers officially replaced Kelly with former Cy Young Award winner David Price on the NLCS roster on Saturday, but Price hasn't appeared in a game since Oct. 2 and hasn't completed more than two innings since the end of August. The Dodgers also have young starting pitcher Tony Gonsolin, who has allowed five runs in four innings over the course of three appearances in this series and also is not stretched out.
If Buehler isn't effective early on Saturday, the Dodgers will turn to their bullpen and attempt to "piece it together," Roberts said.
"We feel really good," Roberts added. "Most importantly, Walker feels really good. I don't want to put a number on what it's gonna be like -- it's about execution, performance -- but as far as physical, mental, he feels fantastic."