These are the quiet days for Dave Martinez and Derek Lilliquist, the days when Max Scherzer is either on the mound or in start-day silence. No advice or amateur scouting reports float in from just over their shoulders. No sweaty man with multicolored eyes hovers behind them with a bat in his hand, offering his pinch-hitting services long before any are needed.
These are the days on which they can think and plot and plan without distraction, though because of Scherzer, they rarely have to plot much on these days at all. These are the days on which they know they will have a chance to win.
For the first time in 2½ weeks, they won on Scherzer day. For the first time in a long time, slumping Bryce Harper helped them do it, reaching base three times and scoring the eventual winning run on Juan Soto’s double in the eighth. The Nationals won, 4-2.
“My swing has felt great. I’ve felt great the past month and a half or so. Just chasing pitches,” Harper said. “Tonight, tried to do the best I could to get a ball over the middle, and I was able to do that.”
Harper did not erupt Thursday night. He went 1 for 1 with two walks and an RBI, his most productive night in some time. For Scherzer, a night like that is nearly all the offense he needs these days — and nearly all he has gotten. Scherzer lost his past two starts despite allowing a two-run homer and little else in each of them. He had not lost two straight starts in three years before that stretch.
The Orioles spent the first two innings squaring up Scherzer’s offerings. He surrendered a solo home run to Colby Rasmus. He surrendered several deep flyballs that Michael A. Taylor had to chase toward the center field wall. He gave up a solo home run to Mark Trumbo, too. He later attributed most of the trouble to two-strike sliders meant to be out of the strike zone that stayed in it. He did not seem worried.
“Hey, we won the ballgame. That’s what matters,” Scherzer said. “That’s my job as the starting pitcher: pitch deep in the game, give my team a chance to win.”
The offense’s inability to score in his recent starts has prompted Scherzer to take his at-bats even more seriously. This week, when the Nationals got back from Toronto, he grabbed third base coach Bob Henley and told him to set the pitching machine to replicate sinkers.
He knew his next start would come against Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman, who relies on the pitch. Scherzer then spent 20 minutes or so trying to bunt the machine’s offerings, swearing at no one in particular, shouting “I’ll get it!” repeatedly at Henley, who had never expressed any doubt that he would.
Scherzer’s first at-bat came with runners on second and third and no one out in the third, infielders pulled to the edge of the grass — not a great time to test the skills. He struck out, handing the rally to Harper, whom Martinez moved to the leadoff spot before the game.
The last time he moved his star there, around six weeks ago, Martinez hoped the move would get Harper more pitches to hit. This time, Martinez hoped moving Harper to the leadoff spot would inspire him to prioritize getting on base, thereby forcing him to take more pitches.
In his first at-bat, Harper worked a nine-pitch walk, one of his longest at-bats in the past week. In his second, with those runners on, Harper hit a sacrifice fly to deep left, looking in control of his approach and the count. He worked a seven-pitch walk in his next at-bat. He looked better.
“That’s kind of what I wanted to see,” Martinez said. “Just him taking pitches, working counts.”
Scherzer, meanwhile, threw 72 of 102 pitches for strikes, allowed five hits and struck out nine in seven innings, by which time the game was tied. Anthony Rendon’s sixth-inning homer meant Scherzer would not leave the game in position to lose a third straight in which he allowed only two runs. The Nationals’ offense had one chance — the seventh — to give him an opportunity to win it. Wilmer Difo slipped trying to tag from third base with the go-ahead run. The chance slipped away.
But Harper gave them another an inning later. He opened the eighth by turning on a pitch that sneaked by Trumbo’s glove at first. He ended up on second with a leadoff double and moved to third on Trea Turner’s single. Both scored when Soto lashed a double to the gap in left-center, another opposite-field hit for the 19-year-old, who is hitting cleanup with a former MVP setting the table for him. He is the first teenager to hit cleanup in almost 50 years.
“I think we’re all amazed every single day,” Scherzer said. “He comes to the park and adds offense to our club every single day. He puts together great ABs. He’s got some antics. He’s got some flair. He’s a great young player.”
Harper’s game was one of his most productive in June. As the Nationals’ steadiest star, Scherzer, stayed steady Thursday night, their other star looked as if he finally might be steadying himself, too.
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