The Washington Nationals remain on the outskirts of the playoff race, still within squinting distance of a spot in the postseason, because Max Scherzer is on their side. He is the only pitcher in either league garnering MVP buzz. He is one of the favorites for a third consecutive National League Cy Young Award. A Silver Slugger is even probable. More than a chance to win every five days, Scherzer provides vigor and passion — and he did it all again Friday night in an 8-2 win over the Miami Marlins.
On the mound, the right-hander wiggled out of a couple jams to hold the Marlins (48-76) scoreless over six innings. He issued one walk and added seven strikeouts to his major league-high total. At the plate, he stroked a double for his career-high 16th hit this season. On the base paths, he scored twice from second base, the first time just beating a throw home with a feet-first slide, in the oppressive humidity. He exited with a 2.11 ERA, a .296 batting average and his major league-best 16th victory. The Nationals are 18-8 when he pitches and 44-53 when he doesn’t.
“He does it all for us,” Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper said. “Every fifth day, he goes out there and pitches the ball well and runs the pillows really well and scores.”
At this stage, however, wins aren’t complete wins for the Nationals (62-61) without help elsewhere in the NL East. They got some Friday. The second-place Philadelphia Phillies won, but the first-place Atlanta Braves lost, so Washington stands seven games back with 39 remaining. A couple of more dates with the Marlins remain before the Phillies come to town for a critical three-game series starting Tuesday. Friday’s win marked the first of 12 straight games against divisional foes.
“Every game is huge at this point,” Scherzer said. “We got to win, and we got to win a lot of games. When we come to the park, we got to win every single day. That just has to be our attitude.”
Ryan Zimmerman opened the scoring in the second inning when he blasted a fastball from Dan Straily for a solo home run. The Nationals doubled the lead in the third when Scherzer scored from second base on Harper’s two-out single, sliding to just beat the throw from left field.
Scherzer encountered his first trouble in the fourth. It started when Rafael Ortega singled and continued when Scherzer issued his first walk to J.T. Realmuto, putting runners on first and second for Brian Anderson, the Marlins’ No. 3 hitter.
Scherzer locked in from there. He struck out Anderson on three pitches, which turned into a double play when Matt Wieters threw out Ortega attempting to steal third base.
He completed a swift escape by striking out Derek Dietrich looking at a cutter. Dietrich thought the pitch was ball four, and his manager, Don Mattingly, agreed, voicing his frustration from Miami’s dugout. Mattingly was tossed mid-inning without stepping onto field, which meant he got to watch Scherzer wreak havoc on his club from the clubhouse.
After Wieters whacked a solo homer into the Nationals’ bullpen, Scherzer deposited a drive to the warning track that one-hopped the wall for a two-out standup double, his second of the season. A few pitches later, he scored from second base again when Magneuris Sierra couldn’t come up with a diving catch on Adam Eaton’s line drive to center field. The Nationals led 4-0, and Scherzer’s prints were all over it.
“I just think it’s a necessity to be a great starting pitcher in this league, in the National League,” Scherzer said. “You have an opportunity to help the team in more ways than just on the mound, and I look for every situation possible to contribute any way I can.”
Washington tacked on another run in the fifth when Harper extended a routine single into a hustle double, took third base on a wild pitch and scored on Anthony Rendon’s sacrifice fly. The all-star slugger finished 3 for 4, hiking his batting average to .248 a month after it was .214.
“Harper’s playing baseball all the way around — base running, hitting,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s not worried about hitting home runs. We tell him all the time, you’re going to run into one. But he’s playing baseball. It’s fun to watch him right now play.”
The insurance seemed superfluous at the time. Scherzer was cruising, and his pitch count wasn’t inordinate at 96. Scherzer told Martinez that he had enough in the tank for two more hitters. Martinez instead opted to give a reliever a fresh inning and turned it over to his depleted bullpen. So Trevor Gott took the mound in the seventh inning, eschewing the Nationals’ new bullpen cart service for a traditional jog, and quickly bungled the shutout.
The right-hander faced five batters. He recorded two outs and allowed two runs, including a home run to Austin Dean for Dean’s first career hit. Matt Grace replaced Gott when he surrendered an RBI single to pinch hitter Miguel Rojas, and he secured the third out without further damage.
It was a fitting snapshot of the Nationals’ season. Without Scherzer on the field, they’re usually rudderless. With him, they’re often the successful team they envision — and they need to continue to be for a shot at the postseason.