Blue Jays’ crucial mission to stay ahead of Rangers goes through ace hurler Scherzer

Texas Rangers starting pitcher Max Scherzer throws against the Chicago White Sox during the first inning of a baseball game, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Arlington, Texas. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)

TORONTO — Chris Bassitt is among the more cerebral pitchers you’ll encounter in baseball. Not only does the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander apply a thoughtful approach to each pitch he delivers, but he also does the same whenever responding to a question.

However, when asked about his former teammate, Max Scherzer, Bassitt didn’t need much time to think things through.

“I don’t think people give him enough credit for how smart he is,” Bassitt said. “Obviously, people know the talent that he has, but mentally, how intelligent he is is off the charts. I’ve never been around a guy who’s more prepared and more in tune with what the other team’s trying to do than him.”

Bassitt will toe the rubber on Monday when the Blue Jays open a pivotal four-game set against the Texas Rangers at Rogers Centre (Sportsnet and SN NOW, 7 p.m. ET / 4 p.m. PT). With Texas sitting 1.5 games behind Toronto in the wild-card standings, the series carries immense weight for both clubs. One potential scenario could see the Rangers overtake the Blue Jays. Another could have the Blue Jays push the Rangers far down in the standings, outside the playoff picture.

Whatever unfolds, one certainty is that the path for the Blue Jays runs through Scherzer, who is slated to start Tuesday against Hyun Jin Ryu.

The Rangers acquired the 39-year-old from the New York Mets before the trade deadline and, in doing so, landed one of the sport’s true aces to front their rotation. Scherzer — a veteran of 16 MLB seasons and most likely a future Hall-of-Famer — has amassed three Cy Young awards, earned eight All-Star selections and leads all active pitchers with 3,365 career strikeouts.

Scherzer and Bassitt were rotation mates with the Mets last season and the latter recalls being amazed when they participated in pitchers’ meetings together.

“The amount of data and information that he’s able to look over and understand is tenfold what I can,” said Bassitt. “It’s beyond impressive to me. I’ve definitely grabbed his so-called war plan or whatever he wants to call it and it’s something I can never (grasp).

“He can look at a lot of data and I can look at the same data. I just don’t retain it in the way that he does.”

Whether it’s charts or metrics on opposing hitters, Scherzer seems to have a photographic memory, according to Bassitt.

“I can look at it and you probably give me three or four days and I might be able remember it,” Bassitt said. “But what he’s able to retain, he’ll remember it a month later. He’s been very, very blessed in that aspect. He’s very smart.”

[brightcove videoID=6333597088112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Scherzer struggled at times during the first half of 2023, but he’s been far more effective in his seven starts since joining the Rangers, pitching to a 3.63 ERA over 39.2 innings. He’s allowed 25 hits and 14 walks while striking out 51. In his last start, though, the right-hander surrendered seven runs in just three innings to the Houston Astros, who clubbed three homers off Scherzer.

Kevin Kiermaier has never gone deep against the right-hander but does have three hits in 13 career plate appearances, which trail only Brandon Belt’s 15 for most among Blue Jays hitters.

“His resume is incredible, just everything he’s accomplished,” Kiermaier said of Scherzer. “But we come in here and it doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, we expect to win. We want to win, and we’re going to prepare and do everything as normal. … It’s not like we get amped up for certain pitchers.”

Kiermaier noted the key to facing Scherzer lies in controlling the strike zone.

“You don’t want (him) to be in the driver’s seat,” he said. “So, you got to be aggressive early.”

Added Daulton Varsho, who’s hitless in two career plate appearances against Scherzer: “He just knows how to pitch. He makes you feel a little uncomfortable being able to spot up (in the zone). And he messes with your timing a little bit. The reason he gets paid a lot of money is because he’s really good. So, you just got to be able to focus in and be able to control (the zone) and go from there.”

Both Varsho and Kiermaier played down the importance of the Rangers series, refusing to label it more important than any other. Kiermaier even went as far as to say he hasn’t given it any thought and hasn’t heard anyone in the Blue Jays clubhouse talk about it.

[brightcove videoID=6336937613112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Bassitt said that’s by design.

“You look ahead, you lose. It’s really that simple. That’s been the message that the older guys have told the younger guys,” said Bassitt. “The second you look ahead, it’s over.”

Bassitt, who’s allowed just one run over his last 16 innings, said it can be easy for the pressure stemming from such high stakes to creep into one’s head. His method of avoiding that is to place all his focus into a game plan.

“I’ve been blessed enough to pitch some big games in the past,” said Bassitt. “I’ve had my successes and I’ve also had failures, and I feel like my successes have come when I’ve treated it like a normal game; my failures have come when I tried to think it was a bigger game I had to win.

“So, I’m going in with a game plan and just trying to execute that,” he continued. “I’m not going to think, Oh this is a must-win, bigger game than normal. Because if I feel like that, you try to do more than you should, and nothing ever works out the way it should.”

Bassitt will work alongside pitching coach Pete Walker and Blue Jays catchers to craft that game plan. It will be precise, however, it just might not be as precise as the “war plan” that Scherzer comes up with.

“This is not a knock on anyone else across the league, but I’ll be shocked if anyone is more prepared than him,” said Bassitt.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.