LOS ANGELES — Every once in a while, the baseball schedule gifts a scene like the one at Dodger Stadium on Friday night, when a regular season game carries enough hype to become a must-see event and the 162-game marathon suddenly doesn’t quite feel like a grind. Friday night at Dodger Stadium was, without a doubt, an event. Not only was it the first of three games this weekend between two of the National League’s projected top teams, it featured a clash between arguably the two greatest pitchers of this decade in front of a packed house. The atmosphere belonged in October.
In one corner stood the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw stood in the other. Between them were six Cy Young Awards, four of the last five in the National League, 12 all-star appearances, and 4,338 strikeouts. It was billed as the best regular season pitching duel baseball will probably offer in 2018. It did not exactly play out as one.
Washington ambushed Kershaw early, Scherzer grinded through six innings, and the Nationals’ bullpen held on to seal a 5-2 victory. The Nationals improved to 10-10, getting their third win in four games to begin a trying nine-game road trip. The Dodgers (8-10) had their four-game winning streak snapped.
The most highly anticipated pitching matchup of the year began not as the 50,211 customers in attendance on this splendid Southern California evening envisioned: with instant offense. Trea Turner lined Kershaw’s first pitch down the left field line for a double to start the game. Howie Kendrick flew out to center field to advance Turner on Kershaw’s second pitch. One pitch later, Bryce Harper sneaked a groundball through the right side of a drawn-in infield to score Turner. Three pitches, three batters, and one Nationals run. Washington’s strategy against the greatest left-handed pitcher of his generation was obvious. They were going to pounce early in the count.
Next up, the suddenly white-hot Ryan Zimmerman roped a double — his fourth extra-base hit in five plate appearances going back to Wednesday — on the fifth pitch of his at-bat. Harper, who had advanced to second on a wild pitch, scored to make it 2-0.
“He’s going to come right at you,” Zimmerman said of Kershaw. “You’re not going to get his pitch count up. He doesn’t walk a ton of people. Might as well be ready to try to hit the first pitch you can. The deeper into the at-bat you go with him, the harder it gets, especially if he can get ahead of you. It worked out good tonight.”
The start was startling, and the oddness bled into the bottom of the frame. Like Kershaw, Scherzer’s first pitch of the night was crushed. Chris Taylor inflicted the damage, a triple to the right-center field gap. Scherzer’s next pitch hit Corey Seager. Suddenly, the Dodgers had runners on the corners with no outs and Scherzer was in a mess.
Unlike Kershaw, Scherzer danced his way out of the jam. First, he got Yasmani Grandal to pop out. Next, Cody Bellinger struck out swinging. Then, with the count 3-2 against Joc Pederson, Scherzer spun a curveball, buckling Pederson’s knees as he helplessly watched strike three. Scherzer strutted off the mound unscathed.
“That was awesome,” Scherzer said. “I wasn’t quite thinking [of throwing a curveball] but as soon as Wieters put [the sign] down, I was like ‘Yeah that’s it.’ In my head I’m smiling knowing that all I have to do is execute it.”
Scherzer worked out of mini jams in the third and fourth innings, but didn’t surrender another hit until Taylor smacked a two-out double in the fifth to give the Dodgers a runner in scoring position for the third consecutive frame. And, again, Scherzer emerged without surrendering a run by striking out Seager on three pitches.
The Dodgers finally capitalized on a scoring opportunity in the sixth, when Yasiel Puig delivered an RBI single after Scherzer issued a walk and allowed a single with two outs. Scherzer quickly rebounded, though, striking out Max Muncy on three pitches. He exited after 106 pitches, having allowed a run on four hits and three walks with nine strikeouts in six innings — while also going 1 for 2 at the plate to increase his batting average to .333. His ERA through five starts is 1.36. He was not at his best, but he was plenty good enough.
He was plenty good enough because the Nationals manufactured runs in the fifth and sixth innings for more breathing room. Michael A. Taylor led off the fifth with a double and later scored on Turner’s well-executed safety squeeze. In the sixth, Taylor drove in Zimmerman with a single. Kershaw, however, would last seven innings. He surrendered four runs on nine hits and struck out four.
“He’s still pretty good,” Zimmerman noted.
The Dodgers appeared poised to mount a comeback in the seventh once Matt Grace allowed the first two batters he faced to reach base. But they generated just one run off Grace and Sammy Solis, who replaced Grace after three batters. The Dodgers didn’t put a runner on base the rest of the night as Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle combined to throw two perfect innings.
While they were perfect, Scherzer didn’t need perfection to prevail. He admitted generating more adrenaline than the usual high dosage, which could’ve played a factor in his unusual inefficiency. When asked if he was more excited for this start than most, he didn’t try to mask the reality.
“Isn’t that obvious?” Scherzer said. “I mean, yeah. I’ve always said you don’t measure yourself against the worst; you measure yourself against the best. I’ve always thought that.”
Against the best on Friday, Scherzer measured well. He was the better pitcher at Dodger Stadium on Friday night. And through five starts this season, he’s proving again he could very well be the best pitcher in the world.
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