MIAMI — Something weird happened at Marlins Park on Friday night. Max Scherzer looked human. He didn’t stockpile strikeouts by the handful. He didn’t strut around the mound with his usual vigor. He labored. The Miami Marlins, one of baseball’s most offensively challenged teams, cracked the code. And, based on recent history, that should have spelled doom for the Washington Nationals.
The occasional offensive outburst aside, they had become dependent on stellar starting pitching to win games in recent weeks.
But the Nationals’ bats picked up the slack for their ace. They even tacked on enough insurance to absorb a shaky bullpen performance as Washington used five relievers for the final nine outs and emerged with a 9-5 victory in their first meeting with the National League East’s last-place team.
After the clubs took turns exchanging two-run innings, the Nationals (27-22) went ahead for good in the seventh. It began with Michael A. Taylor, who bopped a two-run homer and made a leaping grab at the wall in center field earlier, lining a leadoff double. After consecutive walks, Trea Turner legged out an infield hit to push Washington ahead.
That brought up Bryce Harper and prompted Marlins Manager Don Mattingly to insert Adam Conley, a left-hander. Conley jumped ahead 0-2, but Harper fouled off the next two pitches and took two balls before slapping a two-run double down the left field line. The Nationals added two runs in the eighth, and closer Sean Doolittle recorded the final five outs to seal the victory.
“This is just a great team win,” Scherzer said. “Just shows you what our offense is capable of.”
Scherzer (8-1) won’t dominate every lineup, but the odds of the Marlins, of all teams, getting to Scherzer were not good. Scherzer entered the evening leading NL starting pitchers in categories across the board. He was tops in WHIP, strikeouts, opponents’ average, opponents’ on-base percentage and hits allowed per nine innings. His 1.78 ERA was third. His strikeout rate of 14.25 per nine innings would rank as the highest in baseball history. At 33 years old, he is peaking and on course for a third straight Cy Young Award.
Meanwhile, the rebuilding Marlins (19-31) traded away their three best hitters — Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna — during an offseason teardown. The result has been predictable: 30th of 30 in on-base-plus-slugging percentage across the majors. Making matters tougher against Scherzer on Friday, they fielded just two left-handed hitters against the right-hander. It was a mismatch made in Nationals heaven.
But Scherzer was not the buzz saw he had been through his first 10 starts. The Marlins made him work. They didn’t unleash an onslaught on Scherzer, but Scherzer was off, and they initially capitalized in the fourth inning.
After allowing just two base runners in the first three innings — Martin Prado, who went 3 for 4 before exiting with a hamstring injury, cracked a leadoff single in the first inning and a two-out double in the third — Scherzer surrendered a single to Starlin Castro. Then he hit Brian Anderson with a pitch. Two batters later, Scherzer was one strike away from escaping but couldn’t put Miguel Rojas away.
Instead, the Marlins shortstop fouled off two pitches before smacking a two-run single to tie the game.
Taylor had afforded Scherzer some cushion with a two-run homer in the second inning off Marlins right-hander Jose Urena, whose 0-7 record entering the night was both misleading and fitting for Miami’s Opening Day starter. Urena was stellar besides that until Anthony Rendon whacked a double and Matt Adams blasted a ball just over the wall in center in the sixth inning. The home run — Adams’s 12th — gave Washington a 4-2 lead, the kind Scherzer usually holds.
But Scherzer promptly fumbled it away in the bottom of the frame. After Anderson worked a leadoff walk, Derek Dietrich blasted a cutter to the second deck in right field to square the game again. Scherzer was toiling, but Nationals Manager Dave Martinez stuck with him.
“I’m not going to beat myself up over mistakes,” Scherzer said. “I’m going to beat myself up over execution. Things that allow myself to not pitch efficiently as I should’ve. To me, those are the at-bats that matter most.”
He eventually escaped the inning with his 114th pitch, stranding two runners to conclude his night. The four runs allowed were a season high, two more than he had allowed in any of his previous outings. His four strikeouts were a season low, three fewer than his previous low. It was his worst outing in 2018 by a wide margin and snapped a streak of 23 straight starts in which the Nationals allowed three or fewer earned runs.
“I’ve seen better from him, I really have, and he knows it,” Martinez said. “But, you know what, he gave us six strong innings, he really did. He battled.”
The offense was there to carry the load, scoring seven runs from the sixth to the eighth inning, with Harper’s two-run double the other way fueling a three-run seventh.
“We just grinded,” Harper said.
At some point, the Nationals will have to make their move in the standings. With two teams above them in the NL East, they have ground to make up. There’s plenty of time, but the nine-game stretch they’re on against three of the worst teams in baseball, one that began in Washington against the San Diego Padres earlier in the week, is a prime opportunity to collect wins. And if the offense can continue lightening the load for the starting pitching, the wins will come.