On May 22, Max Scherzer allowed four hits over six shutout innings at Citi Field and left with the Nationals protecting a 1-0 lead. Washington lost, 6-1, and suffered another bullpen implosion the following day, allowing the Mets to complete a four-game sweep and drop Dave Martinez’s charges a season-worst 12 games under .500.
Since then, Washington has gone 23-10, including an 18-8 mark last month that ranks as the second-best June in team history. Scherzer led the way. During the best individual month of his career, the Nationals’ 34-year-old ace went 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA, 68 strikeouts, five walks and a 0.68 ERA. His last three wins came with a broken nose.
“Here’s a guy that gets the ball once every fifth day, and he is willing his team to turn their season around every time he goes out there,” former Mets GM Steve Phillips said Monday on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM. “He is the most inspirational major league player, for me, of anybody. If I’m playing behind him, I desperately want to win for him, because he desperately wants to win for the team."
One day after breaking his nose on a botched bunt attempt in batting practice, Scherzer took the mound with a gnarly black eye and tossed seven shutout innings with 10 strikeouts against the Phillies.
“He’s probably the best pitcher of our generation, and you don’t get that status unless you take the ball every fifth day — no matter if you’re doing good, doing bad, you have a broken nose,” Nationals second baseman Brian Dozier said afterward.
In Sunday’s win at Detroit, Scherzer allowed one run over eight innings against his former team and struck out 14, including the last four batters he faced.
“It’s kind of business as usual at this point,” Sean Doolittle said after securing Scherzer’s eighth win of the season. “I don’t mean that as a cliche. He set the bar so high for himself that, no matter how the game starts or what his stuff looks like early, he’s going to find a way to go seven, eight innings. . . . It’s awesome.”
Phillips suggested that Scherzer deserves National League MVP consideration, though Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger remains the front-runner. Bellinger (5.5), Scherzer (5.0) and Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich lead the NL in Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.
“He is the guy who, in my mind, is probably the most competitive starting pitcher in baseball today,” Phillips said Monday. “I think probably he and [Justin] Verlander. The thing about Scherzer, when the nostrils flare and he’s kind of snorting and he’s got smoke coming out of his ears, you can see him mustering the energy for each pitch. He really gets himself psyched up. So many guys try to maintain that even keel of where they are emotionally. Not him.”
As MLB.com notes, Scherzer joined Pedro Martinez (September 1999), Roger Clemens (August 1998) and Randy Johnson (June 1997) as the only pitchers since 1920 to strike out at least 68 batters and post an ERA of 1.00 or lower in a month. He has helped the Nationals dig themselves out of the hole they created in April and May, as Washington became only the seventh National League team to fall at least 12 games under .500 and get back to .500 before July. The 2009 Colorado Rockies, who went on to lose to the Phillies in the NLDS, were the last NL team to do it.
The Nationals are still in third place in the NL East, seven games behind division-leading Atlanta, but they’re only 1½ games out of a wild-card spot. Washington’s playoff odds have improved dramatically since May. In one FanGraphs model the Nationals have a 60 percent chance to make the playoffs — up 28 percent in the last month — and a 19 percent chance to win the division. Washington’s postseason and NL East chances are 46 and 16 percent, respectively, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Scherzer, who was named to his seventh All-Star Game on Sunday, has finished 10th in MVP voting in three consecutive years. Mets ace and reigning NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom finished fifth in MVP voting last year, despite leading the NL in WAR, while Clayton Kershaw was the last pitcher to win NL MVP, in 2014.
“He is that guy that leads and inspires, and I can’t get enough of him,” Phillips said of Scherzer. “I want to watch him pitch every single time out.”
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