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Los Angeles, CA, Sunday, September 12 2021 - Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) pitches.
Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer delivers during a win over the San Diego Padres on Sept. 12, the same day he recorded his 3,000th career strikeout and threw a perfect game into the eighth inning. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Tony Vitello often talks about his close friend in the major leagues with his players and prospective recruits. It’s an easy hook. Max Scherzer is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

The head baseball coach at Tennessee tells them Scherzer’s greatest weapon is his “super powerful brain.” He preaches about Scherzer’s most important skill — his ability to constantly evolve in his craft to remain elite. And he explains what he’s really like when he’s off the mound, when the intensity is switched off, when Mad Max — the scowling, self-muttering, mesmerizing hurler — becomes Max Scherzer.

The best recent example Vitello could think of happened just over a week ago after one of Scherzer’s best performances as a major leaguer.

Erica Scherzer sent text blasts to family and friends a few days before, once she knew when her husband was scheduled to make his next start for the Dodgers. Max was six strikeouts from becoming the 19th pitcher to record 3,000 in a major league career. He would surely reach the mark that Sunday at Dodger Stadium against the San Diego Padres. She wanted as many loved ones there as possible.

His parents and a few friends, including Vitello, made the trip to Los Angeles on the short notice to watch alongside Erica and the couple’s three children. Scherzer not only reached 3,000, but he flirted with a perfect game. He didn’t allow a baserunner until Eric Hosmer doubled in the eighth inning. It was a day to remember.

Afterward, Scherzer handed the 3,000th strikeout ball to his father, Brad. He gave his friend Dustin Braud, a college teammate at Missouri, the lineup card with his signature. Then the group spent the evening at the Scherzers’ rented home. They broke out some champagne. They sipped on hard seltzers and Pacificos. They washed down pizza slices.

“The easiest way to define him is that he made sure all his family and friends came back to the house and had some Little Caesars pizza,” Vitello said. “Nothing fancy. It’s more about the fellowship. He’s about as down to earth as it gets.”

Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer is hugged by teammate Clayton Kershaw.Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer is hugged by teammate Clayton Kershaw.
Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer is hugged by teammate Clayton Kershaw in the dugout after his performance against the Padres on Sept. 12. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

He’s the same Scherzer whom Vitello met two decades ago when he was Missouri’s pitching coach and coordinated Scherzer’s recruiting visit. The same Scherzer who learned to harness his zeal in the Big 12, became a first-round pick with the Arizona Diamondbacks, found his stride as a Detroit Tiger, morphed into an all-time great as a Washington National and is amid one of the most dominant stretches in recent history as a 37-year-old Dodger.

“He’s just continued, like wine,” Vitello said, “just getting better and better over time.”

Scherzer arrived in Los Angeles at the end of July, along with fellow All-Star Trea Turner, as Trevor Bauer’s replacement in the Dodgers’ rotation. Bauer had been placed on paid leave at the start of the month after being accused of sexual assault. The Dodgers didn’t expect Bauer to return this season, and, as of last week, he won’t.

With Clayton Kershaw on the injured list at the time, Scherzer gave the Dodgers another front-line starter for the stretch run and October. He has exceeded all expectations.

The right-hander has posted a 0.78 earned-run average in nine starts with the Dodgers. He has amassed 79 strikeouts to seven walks over 58 innings. He hasn’t given up an earned run in 37 innings since Aug. 21, six starts ago. He has catapulted to the top of the National League Cy Young race, putting him in line to become the fifth pitcher to win the Cy Young Award at least four times. The Dodgers are unbeaten in his starts.

“This clubhouse has been great,” Scherzer said. “Great group of guys. Great clubhouse chemistry. So this is more a product of their clubhouse and what they’ve built that’s made it as easy as pie for me to come in here.”

Scherzer has seamlessly blended into a clubhouse with All-Stars at every corner and at least two other future Hall of Famers. He has talked shop with Clayton Kershaw, his competition for best pitcher of his generation, and Albert Pujols, who broke into the majors with the Cardinals when Scherzer was in high school in St. Louis. The Dodgers adore his accountability and work ethic. Scherzer treasures their commitment to winning.

Los Angeles, CA, Sunday, September 12 2021 - Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) exults.Los Angeles, CA, Sunday, September 12 2021 - Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) exults.

Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer reacts in the dugout during a game against the San Diego Padres on Sept. 12. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“I think you can put him darn near anywhere and he’s gonna be excited to play baseball,” Erica Scherzer said. “He’s like a little kid. He just wants to play baseball all the time. But he does seem to really enjoy it here. He likes the guys.

“You know, we always talked about how cool it would be for him to get to play with Kershaw someday. I’m sure it’s very cool for him to get to play with Albert Pujols. But, overall, I think it’s more about, ‘OK, this is a good team that can really win it all.’ ”

His preference, though, would have been to finish out the season — and his seven-year, $210-million contract — in Washington. That would’ve meant the Nationals were in contention again, two seasons after winning the World Series. The Scherzers thought they would end up staying when the Nationals went on a tear to end June, winning 13 of 16 games to hop two games over .500.

Then the Dodgers traveled to Washington and delivered a four-game series sweep. That, coincidentally, marked the beginning of the end of Scherzer’s time in D.C. Erica Scherzer said they knew a trade would happen about a week before the July 30 deadline, but they didn’t want the story to leak so they couldn’t say all their goodbyes in person as they waited.

Scherzer gave the Nationals a list of teams he would approve as destinations — he had a no-trade clause — and continued pitching until the end, taking the mound for the Nationals for the final time July 29.

Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer acknowledges a standing ovation from the fans at Dodger Stadium.Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer acknowledges a standing ovation from the fans at Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer acknowledges a standing ovation from the fans at Dodger Stadium after achieving the 3,000th strikeout of his career against the San Diego Padres on Sept. 12. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

That day, reports swirled that the Nationals were close to dealing Scherzer to the Padres. Scherzer saw the rumors on Twitter and believed them. But the Dodgers pulled a last-season heist against their division rivals, sending four minor leaguers, including top prospects Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray, to Washington for Scherzer and Turner.

Scherzer joined the team the next day in Arizona. He made his Dodgers debut four days later in Los Angeles against the Houston Astros, giving up two runs in seven innings.

That left Erica Scherzer to conduct a cross-country move with three young children — Brooke is 3½ years old, Kacey is 2, Derek is 4 months — and their four adopted dogs from rescue shelters — Bo, Rafi, Zou and Rocco — to Los Angeles, where they don’t have any family.

“It’s been a lot harder on me,” Erica Scherzer said. “And that’s all intentional on our end, so that he only has to focus on baseball. I don’t want to sugarcoat things; it was a tougher transition than I think either one of us anticipated.

“That all said, though, we could have very easily said no. We knew what we were getting into, within reason, and it’s all about coming to win a World Series, which we certainly want more than just about anything. It’s definitely tough, but we’d do it all over again.”

The move could be temporary. Scherzer will be a free agent in November. Suitors across the country, including in San Diego and San Francisco and back on the East Coast, will pursue his services. For now, Scherzer might go down as the best midseason acquisition in major league history, peaking when most peers his age are left reminiscing about their best days. It was never better than that afternoon two Sundays ago in front of friends and family before some drinks and pizza.

“Having some of us there,” Vitello said, “made it even more special.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.