Dusty Baker has a reputation for pushing his starters deeper into games than other managers. He also has immense faith in Max Scherzer, and who could blame him?
But when Scherzer ran into a late-game wall in Wednesday’s 8-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux left him in to bang his head against that wall over and over — until he had thrown 116 pitches and walked three straight batters for the first time in his professional career.
The rally that followed turned a tie game into a blowout, sending the Nationals (88-57) to their second straight ugly loss since they clinched the National League East and inflating Scherzer’s ERA from 2.34 to 2.59 in minutes.
“We wanted to take him out,” Baker said. “But we wanted to stick with the game plan. We were thinking long run instead of short run.”
If that sentence read like nonsense, that is because conventional baseball wisdom contradicts almost every word. Thinking about the long run means leaving a Cy Young caliber pitcher in longer? Sticking to the game plan means leaving Scherzer in when he walks more batters in a row than he ever has before, in a tie game, with the heart of the lineup due?
The game plan, Baker said afterward, was to allow Scherzer to pitch past 110 pitches Wednesday night. Scherzer asked for the extra work because he had not thrown more than 107 pitches in more than a month and crossed the 110-pitch mark once since the all-star break, in part because of the little nagging injuries that threw him off schedule and left him limited.
“I knew it was important for me, going into that start tonight, to be able to get to that level. That’s where I showed some rust tonight,” Scherzer said. “. . . This is why I needed to pitch that deep into the game, so I can shake off some of that rust and later in the year here I’m able to be strong all the way through 110 pitches.”
After Scherzer walked the first two batters of the seventh inning, after his pitch count climbed toward that 110-pitch mark, Maddux came out to chat with the right-hander. Left-hander Sammy Solis was ready, and left-handed leadoff man Ozzie Albies was due.
“I was honest and saying, ‘Hey, I feel strong right now.’ I felt like I could execute pitches and get guys out,” Scherzer said. He did not do so. He walked Albies, too, running his pitch count to 114.
By then, right-hander Brandon Kintzler was warming. He had not been up for long, however, so Baker left Scherzer in to face right-handed-hitting Dansby Swanson. Swanson singled. The Nationals intentionally walked Freddie Freeman as Baker told catcher Matt Wieters to head out to chat with Scherzer to kill time.
Soon after, Baker marched out to the mound to remove the ace, whose ERA would suffer from the grand slam Kintzler surrendered to Matt Kemp immediately after his departure. Scherzer was charged with seven runs on seven hits and walked six, one below his career high.
“I know it looked ugly. It looked ugly to you. It looked ugly to us and the fans and everybody else,” Baker said. “But if you have a game plan, you want to stick with it as much and as long as you can.”
Were the Nationals not division champions already, Scherzer would not have the luxury of in-game workouts like that one. Even with the division in hand, the question of whether the Nationals should have abandoned the plan when Scherzer clearly succumbed to fatigue remains a fair one.
“I’m never going to sit here and say I love going out there and walking guys, even in the seventh inning,” Scherzer said. “But look, I got something out of it. . . . I took a step forward of where I need to be for the postseason.”
Before the postgame explanations, the whole thing had an ominous feeling; everything the Nationals do these days is thrown into the realm of “what ifs.” What if a decision like this happened in an October playoff game? Baker and Maddux wouldn’t stick with Scherzer in such a situation in the NLDS, would they?
No. They wouldn’t. But when Scherzer — who said he feels “so fresh right now” — says he needs to push himself, given his track record of arm health and general self-awareness, Baker and Maddux give him the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps things would have gone differently if Howie Kendrick hadn’t misplayed a ball in the outfield that forced Scherzer to throw a few more pitches or if Wilmer Difo hadn’t bobbled a would-be double play ball that did the same. Both of those plays led to runs. Scherzer likely would say he should have pitched out of those situations. Maybe he is right.
The game might have gone differently still had Trea Turner not created two runs on the basepaths, one of them with his 40th steal. He is third in the majors in stolen bases despite missing two months.
But for better or worse, Wednesday was about Scherzer, who is 11th in the majors in innings with 184⅓ with three regular season starts likely remaining. As his results Wednesday demonstrated, he is not in shape to push deep into games. The Nationals sacrificed a game in September on Wednesday, trusting in their Cy Young Award winner to know what he needs in October.
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