Even as the Washington Nationals’ playoff hopes fade with the September crowds, even as the end settles in slowly like signs of autumn on the heels of a hot summer, possibility lives in Max Scherzer.
Because even as the Nationals entered the day any combination of four losses or Braves wins away from official elimination, even as young players take the place of older ones — even as Jacob deGrom seems likely to take the National League Cy Young Award from him — Scherzer sees possibility in every opportunity.
He pitched like a determined man again as he struck out 13 in the Nationals’ 5-4 loss to the New York Mets on Thursday night, a game in which his team once again refused surrender. They rallied in the eighth to tie the game on Juan Soto’s slump-busting double, then fell in 12 innings when former Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton hit a sacrifice fly against Jefry Rodriguez.
Bryce Harper earned an ejection in the bottom of the inning when he was called out on strikes. He started to walk away before home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn threw him out, after which Harper grew so furious Manager Dave Martinez had to hold him back.
The Nationals couldn’t tie the game after that. But whatever the standings say about their situation, the Nationals remain entirely unwilling to hand games away, their intensity unwavering. But the standings do say they are nearing their mathematical end, late-game determination or not.
“You’re up there battling, if it’s a ball and you think it’s a ball and you get rung up, you’re going to get heated up, it’s part of competing,” Martinez said. “. . . I don’t think he showed him up at all, I really don’t.”
Scherzer never seems to stop competing. While some have handed the Cy Young Award to deGrom, whose ERA is half a run lower than the next closest National Leaguer, Scherzer entered Thursday night still in reach of 300 strikeouts and 20 wins, if he won his final three starts. Only three pitchers have achieved that combination since 1975 — Randy Johnson (twice), Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez.
In the second inning, Mets starter Jason Vargas hit a groundball up the middle for a hit. Scherzer turned and walked back to the mound in disgust. Michael Conforto made that mistake count with a home run to left field. Then Jay Bruce homered, at which point Scherzer held his glove up for the ball, snapped his glove at it, and whipped his head back toward center field while hollering something unpleasant.
Neither the quiet buzz of a half-full stadium, nor the tired progression of a game that meant little to either side served as a numbing agent powerful enough to dull Scherzer’s fury.
“He fight. He never give up,” Soto said. “He throw and throw. It doesn’t matter if you hit a homer, he’s going to keep working.”
He recorded his seventh strikeout of the evening in the fourth, at which point he tied his single-season career high with 284. Not coincidentally, that number is also the Nationals’ record for strikeouts in a season. An inning later, he struck out Vargas to set a team record — though he still trails the franchise mark of 305 (Pedro Martinez, 1997).
By the end of the fifth inning, Scherzer had struck out 10 for the 17th time in 32 starts this season. He struck out two more batters in a scoreless seventh to finish with 13 — 10 away from 300. Since 1990, only Schilling, Johnson, Martinez, Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw have reached that number.
“I mean you’re aware of it, but that’s not why you go out there and pitch. You go out there and pitch to win,” Scherzer said. “. . . me, those are milestones and I don’t pitch for those. I pitch to win.”
The Nationals trailed 3-2. With two starts left and 17 wins, Scherzer can no longer join that 20-win, 300-strikeout club, which might not seem like a big deal until you consider how much it took for the 34-year-old to come close just once. He would keep pitching for months if they would let him.
“My body feels great. My arm feels great. I still have pitches,” Scherzer said. “. . . So that just shows you what our training staff has allowed me to do to keep me healthy and making every single start. Haven’t missed one, and I’m pretty fortunate for my health.”
His offense rallied an inning to late to give him a chance to win, but in time to save their evening for a few innings. In the bottom of the eighth, Robles singled. Trea Turner walked. Rendon grounded out to score a run. Then Soto, hitless in his last 12 at-bats, broke out with a double that tied the game. The Nationals had chances to score and couldn’t.
“I don’t want to just tie the game. I want to win the game,” Soto said. “I feel bad.”
The Mets finally took advantage of their chance when Rodriguez walked two batters in the 12th to help their cause. Instead of staying with his high-powered fastballs against Lobaton, who would struggle to catch up to them, Rodriguez threw him a change-up Lobaton squared up to dead center, deep enough to bring home the eventual winning run.
By the end of the evening, the Nationals were any combination of two losses and Braves wins from official elimination. That could come as soon as Friday. Even if it does, Scherzer will get two more starts before it’s over, two more chances to run up statistics no Nationals pitcher has ever even threatened. Perhaps the possibilities are not exhausted just yet.