Scherzer had allowed a hit and committed an error, the first of which he endures, the second of which he despises, and was celebrating the second of what would become 11 strikeouts — the one that helped him escape that jam. He would go on to allow just one run — and drive in another — in a 3-1 Nationals win. They have won 11 of 13 and, at 22-18, are 1
games out of first place in the NL East.
“He gives us a chance to win every outing, and that’s very pleasurable for all of us. The guys love playing behind him,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “And now he’s become a pretty good hitter. That’s all he wants to talk about, his hitting.”
The 33-year-old talks plenty of trash, but perhaps he has earned the right. Because when people talk about him, they tell a tale of uncommon work ethic and insatiable drive, of deep investment in his craft and an inability to stand still.
In the fourth year of a deal that will pay him for years afterward, having already earned the big payday that motivates so many, having already accomplished so much of what a man in his position can ever set out to do, Scherzer is getting better. He refuses to indulge himself in the status quo, certain — no doubt because of some fateful cerebral wiring shared by so few — that each moment provides an opportunity to beat someone, even if that someone is himself.
Scherzer lowered his ERA to 1.69, but obsesses more over strikeouts. He doesn’t believe in “pitching to contact” — doesn’t think the phrase makes sense. From his perspective, strikeouts are worth the cost of a higher pitch count. In his first few years in the majors, Scherzer struck out about eight batters per nine innings. That wasn’t enough. He added a curveball, and the ratio rose to just above 10 — a rate at which he won the AL Cy Young in Detroit, and became one of the best pitchers in baseball.
But 10 strikeouts were not enough, either, so Scherzer added a cutter. Sure, cutters often induce weak contact, and are valuable for that reason alone. But for Scherzer, the pitch gave him something to complement his change-up to lefties, a pitch that ran in on the hands, and looked different from the curveball. In his first year with the cutter in 2015, Scherzer’s strikeout rate rose to just under 11 per nine innings. In his second, he crossed the threshold. Last year, he struck out exactly 12 per nine innings.
This season, Scherzer is striking out 13.96 batters per nine innings. He did not lead the NL in strikeouts two years running by accident. Scherzer believes a strikeout or two per game can change an outing, so he wants as many as he can get. Friday, Scherzer struck out at least 10 batters for the 70th time in his career, 45th in his 107 Nationals starts. Scherzer has struck out at least 10 batters in 42 percent of his starts as a National, and at least nine in more than half of them.
“I think what separates Max is his competitiveness, the fire and energy that he pitches with, almost imposing his will at times on hitters. He’s just in attack mode all the time,” Sean Doolittle said. “There’s no setting hitters up for the second or third time through the lineup. He’s just in attack mode right out of the gate.”
Scherzer also obsesses over hitting, and every day, a few minutes after he downs a roast beef sandwich and peruses the scouting report, Scherzer grabs his batting gloves and heads to the cage. One good at-bat could make a difference in the game, he thinks, so as much as he and his fellow pitchers joke and trash talk as they take batting practice, Scherzer prides himself on having an actual approach to each at-bat. That approach yielded a two-out RBI double in the top of the fourth inning that gave the Nationals a lead. He singled to lead off the seventh inning, too.
“I might not be the best hitter. I kind of suck,” Scherzer said. “But I’m going to go out there and compete with you.”
Since Scherzer joined the Nationals in 2015, he leads all major league pitchers with 45 hits, and ranks third with 20 RBI. He is hitting .292 this season.
Scherzer’s RBI double gave the Nationals the lead for the second time Friday. Trea Turner’s leadoff home run gave it to them first. Bryce Harper missed two home runs to dead center by a combined 10 feet or so. Chris Owings stole a home run from Matt Adams, too. Anthony Rendon’s eighth-inning home run was absolutely crushed to dead center field, the only kind of blow that seemed to yield a home run on a night when the Nationals squared up swing after swing and came away with nothing. They didn’t need to give Scherzer much.
Because he has thrown so many innings so early this season, he and Martinez entered Friday hoping to hold him to around 100 pitches. He threw 99 in seven innings, then turned the game over to Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle, both of whom threw scoreless innings to secure the win. The Nationals have now won 22 games this season. Scherzer has won seven of them.