SAN DIEGO — There was no screaming from the mound in this one, no reason to, no cause for drama or concern or anything of the sort.
There was just Max Scherzer, calmed into a trance by his own dominance, carrying the Washington Nationals within two innings of a 4-1 win over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on Saturday night. The Nationals’ ace tossed seven scoreless, striking out nine, issuing an intentional walk and giving up six hits that only led to stranded runners. The offense backed his effort, keyed by Brian Dozier’s two-run home run, and the victory was finished off by Tanner Rainey’s scoreless eighth and another shaky ride through the ninth.
The Nationals can’t win this four-game series after losing the first two. But they can salvage a split with Stephen Strasburg and a mostly rested bullpen Sunday. And they have Scherzer to thank for that. Scherzer was struck in the left calf by a comebacker in the second, felt a bruise tighten up as the game wore on, but persisted for his second gem in as many starts.
“That’s when you just get rid of all the excuses of why you might fail and just come up with reasons you want to win,” Scherzer said. “And just continue to make pitches and execute pitches the way you need to.”
When a team starts slow and then sinks well below .500 by Memorial Day, even hints of success are handled with kid gloves. The Nationals (29-35) had won nine of their past 11 games when they arrived in San Diego. But they had been so bad before that, so inconsistent and so out of sync, that the spurt felt very fragile. Then they lost the first two games here, both by a run, and it became easy to feel that very little has changed. Washington already has lost the right to stumble like any other team. That margin for error disappeared weeks ago.
And so Scherzer was tasked with mopping up that doubt Saturday — at least as much as he could. He was coming off a 15-strikeout outing against the Cincinnati Reds, when he screamed “No!” at Manager Dave Martinez at the thought of being pulled before his final out. He began this start with back-to-back strikeouts and, by that point, already was protecting a slim lead. Washington’s offense nudged ahead in the first when Adam Eaton singled, Juan Soto blooped a broken-bat hit into left and Howie Kendrick knocked in Eaton.
“Our offense did a great job tonight scratching across some runs early,” Scherzer said. “It allowed me to get some breathing room and attack their lineup a little bit easier and be a little bit more aggressive with it. When the offense goes you want to keep throwing up zeros for them.”
Then, with Scherzer picking through the Padres’ order, Dozier expanded the advantage in the fourth. Dozier hit .184 in March and April and, with each passing strikeout, appeared to be a miscalculated signing. But he and Martinez always had the same response to questions about his production — or lack of it — saying Dozier has been a slow starter throughout his eight-year career. It seemed, at times, like cliche used as coverup, an excuse with a short shelf life, logic that couldn’t last. But the numbers checked out, and Dozier is beginning to show why Washington signed him to a $9 million deal in January.
His fourth-inning homer, off a first-pitch fastball from Padres starter Eric Lauer, was his 10th of the season and the 1,000th hit of his career. He homered in the series opener, had two hits Friday and, facing another lefty in Lauer, took advantage to up his average to .350 in his past 20 games. The Nationals tacked on another run when Anthony Rendon singled in Trea Turner in the fifth. Scherzer took it from there.
“The big thing is getting rid of bad habits I created last year,” Dozier said of his hot stretch. “I finally feel comfortable and back to my old self lately.”
There was a time — a whole two or so weeks ago — when these Nationals were unable to win Scherzer’s starts. They were 2-10 with him on the mound despite consistent chances to win. It was odd. It was unsustainable. But his past two appearances have brought a shift of fortune. He has gotten a slight bump in run support. He has become sharper as the year has rolled along. The Padres were just another victim, waving at his dancing off-speed pitches, watching his fastballs whiz by, waiting for when he would exit and their bats would have a chance.
That came after seven innings. That totaled 11 straight scoreless frames and counting for Scherzer, with his ERA dipping to 2.83 and his effort asking for just six outs from Washington’s bullpen. Rainey, a 26-year-old rookie, handled Wil Myers, Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer in a one-two-three inning. Wander Suero entered in the ninth, allowing a run on two hits before Sean Doolittle came in for one pitch to notch his 14th save.
Scherzer, in the end, didn’t need to lobby for another inning or another batter or anything else. His 101 pitches did that for him, and the Nationals rode each one to a pick-me-up win.
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