ATLANTA — The unlikeliest chapter of the growing legend of Max Scherzer began in the most desperate of offensive times for the Washington Nationals, who were hanging on in the 14th inning against the Atlanta Braves, waiting for a run that simply would not come.
The chapter included a bench depleted by injury and innings — so depleted that a rookie manager turned to Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, and said “you’re going to hit.” That three-time Cy Young Award winner delivered a single up the middle, his first career pinch hit, then scored the go-ahead run from first on Wilmer Difo’s triple.
The unlikeliest chapter in the legend of Max Scherzer ended with the ace as the hero on a day he didn’t pitch, as the one who broke through and led the Nationals to a 5-3 win, their first over Atlanta in the third game of this four-game series matching division rivals fighting for the National League East lead.
Perhaps by now, nothing Scherzer does should surprise us. No-hit bids come monthly, double-digit strikeout totals arrive with almost every start, and — as his .310 batting average indicates — hits come regularly. But still, he finds a way to inspire awe.
Scherzer’s promise lies in the fact that he has never seen a baseball moment as anything but an opportunity. And he prepares for every opportunity.
When Manager Dave Martinez turned to Scherzer in the 11th inning of a game in which he had not pitched, days before his next start, and told him he would probably be needed at some point later, Scherzer did not hesitate.
He pulled on his cleats as Justin Miller worked his first scoreless inning, knowing he probably had plenty of time before the pitcher’s spot was due. When Miller worked through a second scoreless inning, Scherzer started loosening up, as he does before starts, swinging the bat, waking up his muscles.
When Miller worked a third inning for the first time in his major league career — completing three perfect innings in the process — Scherzer leaped into his full routine. Hit off a tee. Hit live pitching in the cage. Hunt for fastballs. Stay up the middle. Most pitchers do not have a plan like that. Scherzer executed his to perfection.
“I’m telling you now, Max is just a baseball player. He really is. He’s a student of the game, he pays attention, he’s analyzing, sitting there,” Martinez said. “ . . . He was all in. He got us going.”
The innings had run into each other by the time Scherzer batted in the 14th. Catcher Spencer Kieboom lost count. Closer Sean Doolittle was warming up off and on for three-plus innings. Neither the Braves (34-24) nor Nationals (33-24) had scored since the seventh. The Nationals had scored five runs in 31 innings in the series and had compiled 13 hits in that span. Trea Turner had struck out five times Saturday. Bryce Harper had struck out four. In fact, the top three hitters in the Nationals’ order — Turner, Harper, and Anthony Rendon — had accumulated one hit and 11 strikeouts in 18 at-bats. Scherzer needed just one to get his hit.
“That’s just awesome. The guy’s just the ultimate competitor. That’s the only way to put it,” Kieboom said. “He’s a fireball.”
A batter later, as Michael A. Taylor tried to move Scherzer over, the Braves’ mascot messed with Difo in the on-deck circle. Difo, gregarious as they come, played along.
“He was trying to make me lose focus and concentration for my at-bat,” Difo said through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “ . . . But I maintained focus on what I was supposed to do, and despite his antics out there, I was able to.”
Difo laced a triple to the gap in right-center, and he said he never doubted that Scherzer would score. Martinez said he was holding his breath for those 270 feet, and when he praised Scherzer after he crossed home plate, his ace told him, “I can do it all.”
The only reason Scherzer got that chance at all was that the Nationals hung in there against their division rivals. Taylor hit a two-run homer in the second inning, at which point he had doubled the Nationals’ offensive output in the series. Juan Soto added a game-tying homer in the seventh, The Nationals had six hits in the first 13 innings Saturday, and Soto had three of them.
Gio Gonzalez allowed a three-run homer and nothing else in seven strong innings, after which the bullpen — led by Miller, capped by Doolittle — threw seven perfect innings in relief. Six Nationals relievers threw Saturday. None of them allowed a man to reach.
But Gonzalez, Taylor, Soto and those relievers woke up knowing they could participate Saturday. Scherzer did not. He threw a bullpen in the steamy afternoon heat before trudging off the mound and returning to the clubhouse, where he received news he had won National League pitcher of the month for the second straight month, then engaged in a thorough discussion of whether any man will ever win 300 games again.
It doesn’t seem likely, Scherzer concluded, as he ran through the math in his mind, eyes twinkling as always when he talks about these things. Perhaps, just to be safe, one shouldn’t rule him out.