The Washington Nationals faced one of those games that could be considered a turning point in their season Thursday night at Nationals Park. They beat the Orioles, 4-0, because Max Scherzer delivered, again, in the clutch: eight scoreless innings, allowing just two hits, striking out 10 and throwing 72 of his 95 pitches for strikes without walking a batter. Orioles’ challenge thrown down, challenge accepted — for one night.
“Masterful, masterful job by Max,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “Boy, we needed that so badly.”
Jayson Werth’s 436-foot homer in the fourth inning was the only run until the Nats erupted in the eighth on singles by Trea Turner and Werth, a clutch RBI double by Daniel Murphy and an icing-on-the-cake two-run double by Bryce Harper.
Until then, the near-sellout crowd of 39,722 heard occasional renditions of “Let’s Go, O’s!”
“That really ticked me off — in our own park,” said Scherzer, who said he used the irritation to focus even more.
Once Scherzer stranded his last Orioles runner in the eighth, the home fans could finally enjoy their “N-A-T-S, Nats, Nats, Nats!”
But those basic facts and the release of cheers and nervous tension in the game’s last inning don’t begin to touch the nerves that both teams experienced.
The Nats had lost four games in a row, the past three to their regional rivals. Perhaps even worse, the Nats had played like bumblers for more than a week, even in the three games that they barely won against the miserable Braves. They had gone 10 straight games without a dominant start from their elite rotation, which, for now, has both Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross on the disabled list.
“I needed to pitch deep — help those guys [in the bullpen] out,” Scherzer said.
A four-game sweep by the Orioles would reinforce the notion that, faced with a challenge against a top team, the Nats still play tight and sometimes fold up, as they did in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs, the 2015 division race and in test-of-strength series this season against the Cubs (2-5) and Dodgers (1-5). Is that list long enough? For extra tension, just add the need for rookie pitchers like A.J. Cole, Reynaldo Lopez and (on Sunday) Lucas Giolito to take turns in the rotation.
Finally, to up the psychological ante, the Nationals sent their $210 million ace Scherzer to the mound against the worst starting pitcher in baseball this year, Baltimore’s Ubaldo Jimenez, whose 6.94 ERA entering the game was the highest of any man who had pitched 70 innings. In MLB, this is the horrifying Reverse Lock, perhaps raised to the third power. Jimenez, who often “walks the ballpark,” including soda vendors, walked no one in six innings.
In the back of Scherzer’s mind lurked an Orioles nightmare — a 12-3 loss in which he allowed five earned runs to Baltimore in Game 1 of the 2014 ALDS, which turned into a Baltimore sweep of the favored Tigers. “Oh, there’s history,” Scherzer said. “They’ve gotten me a few times.”
Balanced against that, the Nats, to a man, entered the game inspired by their ninth-inning near-miss comeback against the Orioles on Wednesday when, trailing 10-3 in the ninth inning, they cut the deficit to 10-8 and got the winning run to the plate with only one out. Since 1957, only seven teams have come back to win after trailing by seven runs in the ninth inning. That’s almost 50,000 games.
“We were a hit away from walking away with that game, and that would have been probably one of the greatest comebacks of all time,” Baker said. “If you fight like that, you’re going to win a lot of ball games. . . . I can feel it in my heart that we’re going to get hot. We really haven’t been hot all year. Everybody has their hot streak, and I think ours is going to come right on time.”
So take your pick: an ignominious four-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles and an utter loss of the momentum from the previous night. Or a victory by their ace that might send them into the final 35 games of their season — 25 against the weak and injured NL East, plus seven more at home against the lowly Rockies and Diamondbacks — with a chance to hit the jets.
As a result, the whole evening crackled. The Nats smelled opportunity for a turnaround. The Orioles are in the thick of the AL playoff race, just a game out of first and with a hold on one of the two wild-card spots.
Their path to the postseason is feasible but could be far more difficult with Chris Tillman, their best pitcher who was due to start this game, going on the disabled list this week with a sore shoulder. For a team whose weakness all season has been frail starting pitching, the loss of Tillman for an extended stretch could prove fatal.
Instead of an entire energized Nationals team stomping an Orioles pitcher who has floundered in almost every start, Scherzer found himself alone, assigned the entire task of being Mr. Momentum Switcher. And he shouldered it magnificently. Because of him for those first eight innings, the Nats’ fine work of Wednesday’s ninth inning may now have an impact on the next chunk of this Washington season.
Baseball fans often experience the sport as a sequence of isolated nine-inning games, each result a discrete and discussable subject. A streak of wins or losses is also felt as one interlocked entity.
Ballplayers, however, often experience the game as a continuum that flows from day to day for weeks at a time. The swings of collective emotion, the exhilaration of riding a wave or cascading dangerously downhill, can give some sense of a season’s flow if you’re the one living it.
So Wednesday’s loss probably felt like a disappointment to many. Yet after the game in their clubhouse, the Nats were so visibly proud of themselves, in such an obvious let’s-go-kill-something-and-eat-it mood, you would have thought that they just swept a doubleheader.
Several Nats said, in effect, watch out now. Baker was even blunter. After almost 50 years in the game, he is too old not to speak his mind. He actually foretold the stumbles of the last fortnight before the Nats left for Colorado and a tough road trip.
Now Dusty thinks it’s time to put on the feel-good duds. It’s time for a winning streak, he believes. But it almost died before it could begin. On a night that felt like it had the impact of several, Max Scherzer made sure that the party had a chance to get started.