About four hours before he started the MLB All-Star Game on Tuesday night, Max Scherzer stood in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, tossing a ball in his hands, bright-eyed as ever. One does not typically approach Scherzer on days he starts, but on this day he was approaching others. He granted permission to converse. He welcomed reporters and answered a half-hour of questions. He shagged flyballs during batting practice with the mere mortals. He didn’t even eat his usual pre-start roast beef sandwich.
“I don’t need that much energy,” he joked.
But by the time he was warmed up and ready, he skipped down the dugout stairs like a little kid who had slept in his uniform. This is one of Scherzer’s favorite days of the year.
Nationals Manager Dave Martinez joked he would be angry if Scherzer emerged from the bullpen firing fastballs at 98 or 99 mph after hitting only 97 during the regular season. Scherzer started Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts with a fastball at 96. He eventually caught him looking with a slider.
Then came reigning American League MVP Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros. Scherzer struck him out on three pitches, the last two at 98, the final one so untouchable that Altuve could only smile.
Scherzer got ahead of Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout, too. When he got two strikes, the crowd rose. First it chanted, “Let’s go Scherzer!” Then it chanted, “Let’s go Max.” Scherzer is becoming a one-namer in this town, one of those rare figures for whom a syllable says it all. Trout worked a full count. He fouled back a 97-mph fastball. Then he fouled back a 99-mph fastball. Eventually, Scherzer walked him.
“It was a battle,” Trout said. “When I got to 3-2, hearing the crowd chanting ‘Scherzer,’ I was getting chills.”
The hope of a perfectly dominant night was spoiled there, and it slid further out of reach when he allowed a single to Boston’s J.D. Martinez — one of the hitters Scherzer has said he respects more than most around the league. But when Cleveland Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez popped out to ensure the inning ended scoreless, Scherzer speed-walked off the mound as if infused with electricity. New York Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom began warming up at that point. But National League Manager Dave Roberts had never planned to let Scherzer relent after one.
New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge began the second inning. Scherzer challenged him with somewhat reckless fastballs he probably would not try in the regular season. Judge beat him and smacked a 95-mph fastball up in the zone out to left.
“I threw a fastball up and I hit my spot,” Scherzer said. “But he’s 6-7. I was like, ‘I really thought I threw that high.’ But you’ve got to go higher than higher than high against him.”
Scherzer didn’t allow anything else. In two innings of work he struck out four batters. He allowed that one run on those two hits. He threw 32 pitches, 25 for strikes.
And while many of his fellow National League hurlers pitched, showered and headed out, Scherzer stayed in the dugout, watching at rapt attention on the near end of the bench — occasionally moving to the very end to share some thoughts with Roberts, who probably had not asked for them.
Bryce Harper, meanwhile, was cheered more loudly and frequently than anyone not named Scherzer on Tuesday night. Buoyed into renewed belief by his stunning Home Run Derby comeback victory Monday night, most everyone at Nationals Park stood and roared for his first at-bat of the evening, which came against Yankees right-hander Luis Severino.
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp had just doubled, which meant Harper had a chance to tie the game with a hit, to drive in the home team’s first run. He struck out on three pitches. The home crowd cheered him back to the dugout anyway. All is forgiven for now.
Harper didn’t seem too bothered either. A half-inning later, he joked around with the broadcast team through a mic he wore in center field, the second straight year he has provided in-game commentary. In his second at-bat, he thought he worked a walk but got called out looking. He ended the evening 0 for 2 with two strikeouts after playing five innings, and he flashed one of the biggest smiles of the week in the dugout after Scooter Gennett tied the game in the ninth. Harper left before meeting with reporters after the game. He has done a lot of talking this week, more than he probably has done all season. And with 2½ months remaining in this season, and perhaps in his Nationals career, he will have to do plenty more talking in the weeks to come.
But Tuesday, like Monday, was about the Nationals’ two biggest stars, who stayed the whole game and enjoyed it with the fans who came to see them — their host duties complete, fulfilled with grace and drama. As Scherzer put it, “D.C. did it right.”