ST. LOUIS — The Washington Nationals are not the best team in baseball. They are at least a couple of bullpen upgrades and injured position players away from competing for that designation. But they may possess the most star power in the sport, and if one game could encapsulate their stash of high-end talent, Sunday night’s 7-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals was it.
On a day five Nationals were named to the National League all-star team, Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper, under the bright lights on national television in one of the few baseball-crazed locales remaining in this country, partnered to pummel the Cardinals.
Pitching in his home town, Scherzer, the leading candidate to start the All-Star Game for the National League, overpowered the Cardinals (39-42) with 12 strikeouts over seven innings. And Harper, baseball’s top all-star vote-getter, smacked a pair of two-run home runs in support. The collaboration fueled the Nationals (48-34) to their first win in four days and helped them avoid their first three- or four-game road series sweep of the season.
“We needed this victory to get off this losing streak,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “We needed it for the getaway.”
This wasn’t just another regular season start for Scherzer, who doesn’t need much of anything to generate an intensity that dwarfs his peers’ every fifth day. This was a prime-time start in his home town. This start was different, as was the attention aimed at him.
Scherzer indulged local television reporters for a few minutes in the visiting team’s dugout on Saturday afternoon a couple of hours before Washington fell, 2-1, for their third straight loss. He answered questions about growing up in the area. He praised the University of Missouri baseball and basketball programs. He revealed that his favorite player growing up was Ozzie Smith and his favorite place to go around campus at Mizzou was a pizza spot called Shakespeare’s Pizza. “That’s the best pizza I’ve ever had,” he said.
He was then asked about making his fourth career start at Busch Stadium opposite Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez.
“It has all the extras,” Scherzer said. “You always find a way to motivate yourself. You always find a way to get up for every single game. But this one’s easy to get up for. You don’t really have to do anything. You have everything around you to kind of bring the adrenaline in for you.”
Scherzer funneled all that adrenaline and created a monster. There wasn’t a pitch in his arsenal he couldn’t throw in any count. He went to his power slider on lefties and its slower variant on righties. He occasionally revved his fastball up to 98 mph and dropped in change-ups on his volition. He struck out five of the six batters he faced and nine in the first four innings. He finished with 100 pitches, 66 for strikes. He tossed a first-pitch strike to 21 of the 26 batters he faced and generated 23 swings-and-misses.
“He’s one of the best in the league, if not the best,” Harper said. “If there’s a guy I want on the mound every fifth day, it’s him.”
The performance extended perhaps the best stretch of the 32-year-old Scherzer’s career: Over his past eight starts, the right-hander has posted a 0.89 ERA and racked up 87 strikeouts to 10 walks in 61 innings. His ERA now stands at 1.94. No other qualified starting pitcher in baseball has an ERA under 2.
“It’s all about hands,” Scherzer said. “I made that mechanical adjustment, brought my hands up higher, and when my hands are up higher, [it] just allows my mechanics to work.”
Scherzer was given a quick lead in the first inning with the first of Harper’s home runs off Martinez, who was chased after allowing five runs across five innings. The first homer came on a 1-2 slider down and in but still in the strike zone, and Harper dialed his swing back to connect. It snapped an 11-game homerless drought for Harper and matched the Nationals’ scoring output from the previous two nights combined. The second shot came on an 0-2 change-up, further down out of the strike zone, in the third inning. Harper golfed it into the home team’s bullpen for his 13th career multi-home run game.
“I try to go out there and put the bat on the ball,” Harper said. “And hopefully he’ll supply the power a little bit and you get lucky and get a pitch you can drive. And we were able to do that pretty early on.”
The Nationals added another run in the third inning on Anthony Rendon’s RBI double and two more in the eighth with two sacrifice flies. By then, Scherzer had quickly dismissed the Cardinals in order in the seventh to conclude his night, and he doled out hugs when he reached the dugout, starting with his manager.
“A game like this, on a national stage on ESPN, he really comes out ready,” Baker said. “I wasn’t surprised, and none of us here are surprised.”