“I saw it all the way,” Soto said. “And right after it was coming down, that’s when I lost it.”
Scherzer finished with 11 strikeouts and a shaking head. He hadn’t gone this deep in an outing since July 6. But none of the details were sharp. The offense couldn’t turn base runners into rallies, the Cardinals’ bullpen shut it down in the late innings, and Dexter Fowler robbed Asdrúbal Cabrera of a three-run homer in the eighth. The Nationals stranded nine runners and managed just an unearned run. They soon left St. Louis with a series defeat and the pressure building.
Despite the loss, the Nationals maintained a 1 1/2-
game lead over the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers in the National League wild-card standings after both teams lost Wednesday night.
Baseball teams spend months stressing over even the smallest decisions. There’s a strategy of when and why to put players on the injured list. There’s a science to travel and choice of road hotels. Then there are the choices made throughout each game — all magnified in a September pennant race. Washington illustrated that by rolling out Tuesday’s lineup again Wednesday despite a quick night-to-afternoon turnaround. That meant pushing Howie Kendrick, 36 and on strict load management this season, when the Nationals normally wouldn’t. It meant Yan Gomes catching for the fourth straight day. It meant, more than anything, that this could be the approach moving forward.
The Nationals also shuffled their rotation to make sure both Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, now bumped up from Sunday to Saturday this coming weekend, could be available for a potential wild-card game Oct. 1. But first, before any of that unfolds, the Nationals gathered behind Scherzer in St. Louis. This was the ace’s sixth start since he came off the injured list late last month. He had been carefully building his workload, one outing at a time, but wasn’t on any sort of limit Wednesday.
Then Scherzer carved through the Cardinals’ order, mixing five pitches, leaning on his fastball and slider before throwing more change-ups late. He retired 12 of the first 13 batters he faced. But that lone base runner, Edman, proved consequential in the third. Edman golfed a 1-2 cutter into the Cardinals’ bullpen beyond the right field wall. Scherzer settled down after and went back to dominating for a couple of innings before giving up a manufactured run in the fifth.
“I’m accountable for the pitches I throw,” Scherzer said when asked whether the score didn’t reflect how sharp he was. “Today, they put some good at-bats against me.”
The Nationals wasted a significant scoring opportunity against starter Adam Wainwright in the second when Scherzer ripped a single to shallow right with runners on first and second and two outs. Edman charged at full speed, and third base coach Bobby Henley waved Victor Robles around third. Edman, usually a third baseman, was playing shallow with Scherzer at the plate. Henley’s aggression, a hallmark of his strategy coaching third, was miscalculated, and Robles was thrown out at home.
The Nationals taxed Wainwright in the seventh once Trea Turner drove in Gomes with a two-out double. But the 38-year-old right-hander then got Adam Eaton to fly out to deep right. He was helped through the inning because Hale let Scherzer hit for himself with one out and a runner on second. Hale said he would have considered lifting Scherzer if two runners were on. But he still felt that, with a climbing pitch count, Scherzer was Washington’s best option for the seventh.
Scherzer lasted just two more outs — and gave up three more Cardinals runs — once the inning was extended and before he walked off the field for good.
“That’s what happens when you play playoff-quality teams. It comes down to the little stuff,” Scherzer said, pointing the finger at himself before Soto or anyone else. “It doesn’t matter how good the big stuff is. Everyone can execute the big stuff at this point. It comes down to the fine details. That’s what kind of did me in today.”
The crushing rally never happens if Soto hadn’t lost track of the ball, if it had been hit a foot or two in any direction, if the sun hadn’t been resting in that exact spot in that exact moment to cause exactly what the Nationals couldn’t afford. But the box score will reflect only the damage done.