CINCINNATI — Dusty Baker took a risk when he chose to pinch-hit for Max Scherzer in the seventh inning of the Washington Nationals' 10-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday night.
The Nationals (54-36) were nursing a four-run lead with nine outs remaining, which isn’t exactly safe with their relief corps, a three-month sample size suggests. But Baker didn’t have much of a choice. Scherzer had thrown 95 pitches across six scoreless innings, fewer pitches than he had thrown in all but one of his 18 previous starts, but he told pitching coach Mike Maddux his tank was nearly empty after the sixth. So Baker pulled the plug on his ace, sending rookie Adrian Sanchez to the plate at Great American Ballpark to hit for him after Ryan Raburn led off the seventh with a home run.
The gamble was soon forgotten. Sanchez lined out, but seven of the next eight batters reached base, capped by Raburn's second hit — a single to center field — in a seven-run inning. Anthony Rendon's grand slam, his second home run of the night and 18th this season, served as the biggest blow in the outburst, and gave the Nationals their 16th output of at least10 runs — two more than their previous club record. It also ended up being the difference because even a 10-run lead almost wasn't enough for the two relievers at the bottom of Washington’s eight-man bullpen.
Left-hander Enny Romeo struck out the side in the seventh on 15 pitches. But then Austin Adams, promoted from the minors Friday, was assigned the eighth inning for his major league debut, which Baker had said he hoped would happen in the lowest-leverage situation possible. A 10-0 game in the eighth inning was it. The right-hander faced five batters, allowed a hit and two runs, walked two batters, hit another, threw a wild pitch and didn’t record an out before Baker removed him. It was a complete disaster. And it was better than Trevor Gott’s night.
Gott, the other reliever called up Friday, also didn't record an out when he pitched in the ninth. Instead, he faced five batters — two of whom had entered the game as defensive replacements during the blowout — and all scored. The last three crossed the plate on Scooter Gennett's three-run home run.
“I was trying to rest some of my players and rest some of my bullpen, and I ended up going through the bullpen anyway,” Baker said. “So, there’s still a few things for us to figure out.”
Daniel Murphy began building that double-digit cushion with his major-league-leading 30th double in the fourth inning, which scored Bryce Harper with two outs for the game's first run. He then scored on Rendon's first home run, a two-run blast. Rendon, an all-star snub, finished 3 for 3 with two walks and the two home runs. He’s batting .351 with a 1.178 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 40 walks and 29 strikeouts since April 30.
“Rendon’s a dangerous man,” Baker said.
So is Scherzer.
Baker watched the All-Star Game while vacationing at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, and, no different than the rest of the audience, marveled at Scherzer's intensity. At the grunting with each pitch. At the words to himself, most of them probably unsuitable for family television. It was the trademark passion Scherzer displays every fifth day, only in a game lacking any consequence.
"You could tell the way he was getting after it for that one inning," Baker said. "Man, he'd be a heck of a closer."
That, of course, isn't the best use of the resource. Scherzer is one of the top three pitchers in the world, and talents in that stratosphere are optimally used gobbling as many innings as possible.
Scherzer entered Saturday second in that category across baseball, and he passed Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw for first with his six-inning effort. But it didn't appear as if he would last that long early on. It wasn't that Scherzer, pitching at Great American Ballpark for the first time, wasn't overpowering. He struck out six in two innings. The Reds (39-51) didn't record an out that wasn't a strikeout until the third inning, when Adam Duvall popped up to the shortstop for the second out. Scherzer finished that inning with two more strikeouts, including a second of Joey Votto, who entered the night with the sixth-lowest strikeout rate in the majors.
The problem was the turbulence that welcomed Scherzer at the beginning of each frame. In the first inning, Billy Hamilton doubled on Scherzer's first pitch of the night and Zack Cozart followed with an eight-pitch walk. In the second, Eugenio Suarez led off with a walk. In the third, Hamilton hit a lead-off single and stole second base before Cozart worked a 10-pitch walk.
Scherzer maneuvered out of trouble each time in dominant fashion with Matt Wieters steering from behind the plate, stockpiling those eight strikeouts in three innings out of the stretch. But he also threw 62 pitches.Yet Scherzer, as he usually does, settled in and dismissed the Reds in a more efficient fashion, tossing 33 pitches over the next three frames. He allowed two base runners during the stretch and added two strikeouts, giving him 10 on the night to counter a season-high four walks. It was his 12th double-digit strikeout performance in 2017 and ninth in his last 10 starts.
“Wieters did a great job tonight sequencing guys,” Scherzer said. “He really threw down some fingers for me. We kind of joked on the bench, that was the best sequencing we did together. Just keeping them off-balance in big situations.”
Baker's call to the bullpen eventually created some drama, but, ultimately, Matt Grace replaced Gott to record three straight outs in the ninth for his second save in two nights and the Nationals absorbed the late meltdown thanks to that seven-run frenzy.