Scherzer was lights out for five of his six innings, allowing no runs, no hits and a lone walk outside the fourth. His arm and body felt good once all the work was through. Yet those four runs on five hits in the fourth invited questions that will be tough to untangle: Was that inning just a regular lapse in a regular start? Or was it connected to Scherzer’s recent injuries, the ones that have turned his summer into a test of patience and his ability to heal?
The 35-year-old ace didn’t express much cause for concern.
“It was definitely a step forward. I felt like I was able to start bringing some intensity to the pitches, especially getting six innings,” he said. “There was a lot of good in this start. In the fourth, [I] ran into kind of a buzz saw. They were able to get on some pitches and get a rally going.
“Obviously, there’s things I can sharpen up as I continue to ramp up intensity and everything follows suit. An outing like today, as much as you want to beat yourself up for it, was a step forward.”
This was Scherzer’s third start since he returned from the injured list Aug. 22. He missed close to seven weeks, save one late July appearance, with a list of diagnoses that included a mid-back strain, bursitis in the scapula below his right shoulder blade and a mild rhomboid muscle strain. They were sometimes referred to, collectively, as a back problem. Other times the word “shoulder,” far more daunting for a pitcher, crept into the public conversation.
The Nationals need Scherzer, their ace, at 100 percent. He has been steadily rebuilding his workload over the past two weeks. He threw 71 pitches in four innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates in his first start back. He lasted 18 more pitches, and went one out deeper, against the Baltimore Orioles six days later. Then he threw 90 against the Mets in his longest outing since July 6. He lobbied to stay in for the seventh but trusted Manager Dave Martinez’s judgment. He felt that this outing set him up to throw 100 pitches or even a bit more when he faces the NL East-leading Braves in Atlanta on Sunday.
“I was able to start throwing pitches at 100 percent, start letting it eat,” he said. “Really started throwing some fastballs and really stepping on some fastballs and stepping on some off-speed pitches, as well. So for me, that was picking up the intensity on a per-pitch basis. It was definitely higher tonight than it was in the past two starts”
He struck out five in the first three innings and faced just one batter over the minimum. His riding fastball set up well-commanded secondary stuff. But a second trip through the Mets’ lineup was a speed bump. Then it was a full-on wall.
Scherzer had not allowed a hit entering the fourth. That changed when Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto started the inning with back-to-back singles. Alonso went with a first-pitch slider low and off the outside corner. Conforto stalked a first-pitch cutter on the outer half of the plate. Wilson Ramos followed with a double, extending his hitting streak to 26 games, and used a first-pitch fastball to do so. Only the pitch to Conforto would have been called a strike. The Mets handled them anyway. Then Brandon Nimmo lifted a sacrifice fly to center, bringing in another run, and Panik ambushed Scherzer yet again.
Gerardo Parra turned and sprinted after Panik’s drive to right. But he slowed once his feet neared the warning track. Panik had gotten just enough of the 91-mph cutter to reach the first row of seats. Scherzer gave up a double to Luis Guillorme before finishing the inning. He bounced back with a quick fifth, retiring the side in order, and did the same in the sixth. His average fastball velocity was a normal 94.8. And his rough fourth, and the Mets’ aggressive approach during it, was buried by history once the night was through.
Yet now the Nationals will see what reverberates past this start.
“He’s getting better. He’s definitely getting better,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “Let’s think about it: The guy never went on a rehab start. This guy is pitching against the best competition out there as a so-to-say rehab. And he’s going out there and giving us a chance to win every single time out.”