Max Scherzer had a no-hitter broken up by Paul Goldschmidt in the seventh. He exited without allowing a run. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

by Jesse Dougherty

ST. LOUIS — Max Scherzer drifted off the mound, his feet chopping into the grass, his hands ready to punch the air, while Yadier Molina’s bouncer headed straight for Trea Turner’s glove.

It was all Scherzer needed to polish off the best postseason start of his career. And when it went right, when the double play was turned and the seventh inning was over, Scherzer offered a quick burst of emotion before straightening up. He rolled his shoulders while turning toward the dugout. He walked in a laser-straight line and arrived there as the second Washington Nationals starter to shut down the St. Louis Cardinals in this series.

The Nationals won again Saturday, this time 3-1, after Scherzer allowed just three base runners while fanning 11.

He was only outdone by Aníbal Sánchez’s 7 ⅔ scoreless innings Friday. Both right-handers allowed a lone hit. Both rolled the Cardinals’ lineup into a ball and tossed it out of sight. The Cardinals can’t score, or activate their dangerous running game, if they don’t have base runners.

The Nationals spent around $95 million on their rotation this season, and the investment is paying off. That’s the simple way to explain their 2-0 lead in the National League Championship Series.

“I’ve been blessed to play behind some really, really good pitchers,” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “And you just enjoy the masterpiece that they are painting.”

The Nationals’ pitching strategy isn’t a secret. It’s in the open, for everyone to see. They have six postseason wins since Oct. 1. They have needed 165 outs in those victories — counting a 10-inning defeat of the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the NL Division Series — and all but two of them were recorded by just six pitchers: Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Sánchez, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. The goal is to avoid middle relievers at all costs. The question, though, is how long can the Nationals keep this up?

They did for another day. Scherzer made sure of it. Doolittle, Corbin and Hudson notched the last six outs coming out of the bullpen. Corbin was used as a lefty-lefty specialist to face Kolten Wong in the ninth, his third relief appearance of the playoffs, and he retired him with two pitches. The Nationals did know, coming in, that this series would be different from the previous round. There are more games. There are, in turn, fewer chances to innovate.

Scherzer spent the NLDS pacing around the dugout, hands on his hips, basically begging Manager Dave Martinez for an inning out of the bullpen. The 35-year-old threw 109 pitches in Game 4, deadening his arm, and was still trying to face a batter or two when the Nationals were close to clinching. He’s wired to do whatever it takes. He’s also aware when situations change.

“You can’t be coming out of the pen in the same form or fashion unless you’re not going to be making your start,” Scherzer said Friday afternoon, denying that he would lobby to relieve against the Cardinals. “For me, it’s probably just pitch Game 2 and then wait for my next start.”

So there he was about 24 hours later, stepping through the shadows of a sun-drenched afternoon, then using those shadows to dominate. Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright did the same. There was a straight line of shade cutting through the infield when Scherzer first took the mound. The hitters were in the dark, making it harder for them to read the spin of each pitch, and letting Scherzer exploit that with a mix of fastballs, change-ups and breaking balls.

He had a no-hitter until Paul Goldschmidt poked a leadoff single in the seventh. Juan Soto thought it was too low to dive for and didn’t want to make an error in a one-run game. Washington got that slim lead after Michael A. Taylor hit a solo shot off Wainwright in the third.

Scherzer agreed with Soto’s calculated caution, even with history on the line, because the Nationals are chasing much more than personal gain.

“Just throwing up zeros. It’s a 1-0 game, mistakes are . . . it’s razor thin out there. You can’t give,” Scherzer said of what was going through his mind in the seventh inning. “I’m really thinking, ‘Don’t give up a solo shot.’ ”

This all came after Sánchez carried a no-hitter for 7 ⅔ innings Friday night. In 2013, when they were with the Detroit Tigers, Scherzer and Sánchez became the first pitchers in postseason history to hold the same team hitless through five innings of consecutive games. Then they did it again six autumns later.

Scherzer then stranded Goldschmidt and, just two batters later, finished a 101-pitch effort with that double play.

Doolittle began warming in the bullpen as Scherzer skipped down the dugout steps. Matt Adams pinch-hit for Scherzer and pulled a single off the wall. Turner blooped a hit and, with Wainwright nearing 100 pitches, Eaton slapped a double down the right field line.

The insurance runs helped cover a defensive mistake by Taylor in the eighth. He misjudged a liner and, when it sneaked over his head, the Cardinals had their first and only run of the series.

But it led to nothing more. Scherzer’s gem held up. And by day’s end, with the sun fading against this stadium for maybe the final time this season, there was just one way to view what happened here: The Nationals marched into St. Louis, and their rotation dominated. Their starters deflated the town.

Read more on the Washington Nationals:

Aníbal Sánchez’s near-no-hitter gives Nationals 2-0 win over Cardinals in Game 1 of NLCS.

Miles Mikolas had a great start for the Cardinals. Just not as great as Aníbal Sánchez.

Juan Soto’s shuffle draws more scrutiny than ever against the Cardinals

Boswell: When it comes to World Series droughts, D.C. is a special place for suffering

Svrluga: Aníbal Sánchez put the Nationals in command of NLCS

These are the Cardinals and Nationals who will decide the NLCS.

Max Scherzer’s catchers have a story to tell

Max Scherzer’s approach to his last 15 pitches explains everything about him


Michael A. Taylor hit a home run in the third inning Saturday. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Inning-by-inning recap

by Sam Fortier

Ninth inning (Nationals 3, Cardinals 1)

The Nationals went quietly in the ninth inning, no more insurance runs on the board. The focus turned to the Nationals bullpen.

Dave Martinez gambled by bringing in starter Patrick Corbin out of the bullpen to face left-handed hitter Kolten Wong, but it worked. Wong grounded out to second on his second pitch. Then Martinez went to Hudson, the closer who’d slept little and rejoined the team this morning after having a baby in Phoenix on Friday. The right-hander had poor career numbers against the two hitters he was tasked with getting out, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, but he got them anyway. The Nationals will carry a 2-0 lead back to Washington — and they might never come back.

Eighth inning (Nationals 3, Cardinals 1)

The Nationals could have stuck with Max Scherzer at 101 pitches against the middle of the Cardinals lineup next inning, but they decided not to. They pinch-hit Matt Adams for him in the eighth, and Big City delivered a long single to the right-center field wall. It’ll be Sean Doolittle out of the bullpen. Scherzer’s final line: Seven innings pitched, one hit, two walks, 11 strikeouts and no runs.

Adam Eaton then drove in Adams and Trea Turner with an RBI-double down the right field line to end Adam Wainwright’s gem and force him from the game. The Nationals right fielder delivered a crucial hit to protect a gem from his team’s own pitcher for the second night in a row and pushed the Nationals to the brink of a 2-0 series lead.

Andrew Miller appeared and shut the Nationals down, popping out Juan Soto and striking out Howie Kendrick.

Michael A. Taylor made a surprising error to give the Cardinals their first run of the series. Jose Martinez drilled a line drive to center field in the eighth and Taylor somehow missed it at the last second. Paul DeJong sprinted around from first base and, just like that, the Cardinals cut the lead to 3-1.

Seventh inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0)

Adam Wainwright retired the side in order and is low-key shoving. He has seven innings, four hits, one run, and yet it’s the third or fourth story line in this game. The St. Louis-area kid’s no-hit bid is first, the Cardinal bats deafening silence is second and Michael A. Taylor’s offensive outburst to give the Nationals the lead might third. This is wild.

Paul Goldschmidt — the one who struggled against Max Scherzer more than anyone — was the one who broke up the no-hitter. His single to left dropped just in front of Juan Soto and his single to lead off the seventh inning ended the starter’s bid one inning before Aníbal Sánchez’s did on Friday night. The no-hit bid was over, but Scherzer bore down. He struck out Marcell Ozuna and got Yadier Molina to ground into a 6-4-3, inning-ending double play.

Sixth inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0)

The Nationals made nothing of a leadoff single by Trea Turner and, perhaps more disconcertingly, watched Juan Soto take arguably his worst hacks of a no-good, very-bad day. The Nationals young phenom fanned on a check swing against Adam Wainwright to end the inning — his third strikeout of the day and the second in a row on a 90-mph or slower fastball.

How the Nationals handle this situation will be fascinating. Max Scherzer has a [redacted] going through six innings, but he’s at 92 pitches. All the parameters from our recap in the fifth still apply — high pitch count before, needing him for later, etc. — but Scherzer is famously competitive and might not want to come out. He’s due up fifth this inning and, if the Nationals put runners on, they will at least consider pinch-hitting for him to expand a 1-0 lead. We’ll see.

Fifth inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0)

Michael A. Taylor’s hit in the fifth didn’t mean much at the time — Max Scherzer grounded out, ending the inning — but he flipped the lineup and will give the Nationals a fresh slate headed into the sixth. This is important because he did the same thing in Game 4 of the NLDS, setting up the top of the order to key a big rally in the fifth. You might remember it from Ryan Zimmerman’s huge home run. Taylor can pick his spots.

Okay, so Max Scherzer still hasn’t allowed a hit through five innings. He’s at 78 pitches and, at his pace, it’d take more than 140 pitches to complete a [redacted]. The Nationals cannot allow his pitch count to get that high, so it means Manager Dave Martinez might have a difficult decision to make soon. The leverage increases because, five days ago, Scherzer threw 109 pitches in his Game 4 win over the Dodgers and a dramatic seventh-inning escape left him saying his arm felt as though it was hanging off his body. The Nationals need to be careful here.

Fourth inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0)

Adam Wainwright has retired 12 of the 14 hitters he’s faced. Michael A. Taylor’s home run in the third has been the only real blemish on his outing so far, and he furthered this point in the fourth by retiring the side in order. He most impressively made Howie Kendrick look silly with a curveball for strike three.

Max Scherzer still has not allowed a hit to the Cardinals. He retired the side in order in the third and struck out Paul Goldschmidt for the 16th time in their 27 at-bats against one another (Goldschmidt has two hits). Scherzer is up to 67 pitches however, meaning there’s a long way to go before he could truly chase a [redacted].

Third inning (Nationals 1, Cardinals 0)

Michael A. Taylor, hitless in his last six at-bats (four strikeouts), blasted a homer to left and the Nationals scored first again. The Cardinals groused this morning about the ball flying shorter because of the cold weather on Friday night, and Manager Mike Shildt said the analytics department told him the ball was flying 4 1/2 feet shorter than normal. Taylor’s blast landed a few rows back. Imagine if it went 4 1/2 feet farther.

Max Scherzer has … not allowed a hit through three innings. He’s doing it differently than Aníbal Sánchez — a lot of power pitches, fastballs at 97 mph up in the zone, challenging sliders away — but accomplishing the same feat. The question is how long it can last.

Second inning (Nationals 0, Cardinals 0)

The Nationals went down in order again and, though this isn’t the definite reason, a former player pointed out before the game that the shadows could impact the offense of this game. When there’s shadows, he said, the hitter struggles to look for the seams of the baseball as they normally might, because the direction of the spin could tell you what type of a pitch it is. The shadows can make the ball appear totally gray and negate the ability to look at the seams. This doesn’t mean hitters can’t hit, but it’s the top reason offenses might struggle more during afternoon games.

Max Scherzer continued mowing through the Cardinals lineup with another 1-2-3 inning punctuated by his fourth strikeout. Yet his pitch count climbed to 39 pitches after two frames. The Nationals have almost a full bullpen, except for maybe a dialed-back Sean Doolittle, and their fortitude might be tested early.

First inning (Nationals 0, Cardinals 0)

Anthony Rendon knocked a sharp single to left but, other than that, Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright zipped through the first inning. He finished off the inning by striking out Juan Soto, the Nationals’ cleanup hitter who drew the ire of Busch Stadium in Game 1 because of his elaborate, between-pitches routine. Cardinals fans booed a little louder when he walked to the plate and cheered a lot louder when he fanned.

Max Scherzer had shaky command in the first, throwing 10 strikes in 20 pitches, and he issued a four-pitch walk to Kolten Wong. The Cardinals second baseman stole second, a facet which will be problematic for the Nationals this series because the Cardinals love to run and catcher Kurt Suzuki has struggled to throw out anyone on the bases this season (5-for-50). Scherzer struck out the last two hitters, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, but at some point, likelier than not, the free bases the Nationals are allowing will hurt them.

Pregame

Max Scherzer received a small stirring of applause from Busch Stadium when he headed out to the pregame bullpen. He was raised here, not 30 miles from the stadium, and they gave a small nod to the local kid. But Scherzer, and the fans, knew they were trying to beat each other today. Scherzer was asked Friday what memories he had in this stadium as a child, when he was a die-hard Cardinals fan.

“Grew up here, but at this point in time really doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “I got a bigger task at hand, and that’s to go out here and win it for the Nats.”

Series overview

  • Game 1 at St. Louis — Oct. 11: Nationals 2, Cardinals 0
  • Game 2 at St. Louis — Oct. 12: Nationals 3, Cardinals 1
  • Game 3 at Washington — Monday, Oct. 14, 7:38 p.m.
  • Game 4 at Washington — Tuesday, Oct. 15, 8:05 p.m.
  • Game 5 at Washington — Wednesday, Oct. 16, 4:08 p.m. (if necessary)
  • Game 6 at St. Louis — Friday, Oct. 18, 8:08 p.m. (if necessary)
  • Game 7 at St. Louis — Saturday, Oct. 19, 8:08 p.m. (if necessary)