Of the 4½ seasons in which Scherzer has graced us with his presence — 4½ seasons that include two no-hitters and a 20-strikeout game — Wednesday night may have been the most Max moment of them all, peak Scherzer. His face was broken and grotesque because of that fouled-off bunt attempt a day earlier. He could have gone right onto the set of “Game of Thrones” without reporting to makeup. How could he pitch? Are you kidding? How could he not pitch?
Whatever happens in this Nationals season — a season that took a step toward resurrection with a doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday — we will have this gem, Scherzer at his competitive finest. His final line in the box score reads as Max at his healthiest: seven innings, four hits, no runs, two walks and 10 strikeouts in a 2-0 victory in the nightcap. Nothing out of the ordinary. See you again in five days.
This was different.
“I wanted to pitch. I didn’t feel any p . . .” he said, stopping himself short. “Doesn’t feel great. But I wanted to pitch.”
He tried to downplay it: “On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain today was a zero,” and “Trust me, this looks a lot worse than it actually feels.” And that’s good because it looks terrible.
Don’t think, though, that the clubhouse doesn’t notice. It does. For a team that’s fighting to stay afloat, that matters.
“It really is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a while,” said second baseman Brian Dozier, who homered in both games. “He’s probably the best pitcher of our generation, and you don’t get that status unless you take the ball every fifth day — no matter if you’re doing good, doing bad, you have a broken nose. You always want the ball.”
It is, in baseball, the quality most admired. When Scherzer left the park Tuesday night, his face heavily bandaged, he was asked by various people how uncomfortable he was. Didn’t matter, he responded. He would be pitching. He would be @!#&% pitching, thank you very much. When Dozier saw Scherzer preparing Wednesday afternoon, he ribbed him, “Ahh, you’re going to pitch,” as if he wasn’t sure.
“He kind of gave me the go-to-hell look,” Dozier said.
On a normal day, that look could be startling. From behind Scherzer’s discolored eye, pull the covers over your head.
From even before his first-pitch slider for a strike to Phillies shortstop Jean Segura, it was obvious Scherzer wasn’t treating this as any other start. The version of Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E” that pumped through Nationals Park as Scherzer warmed up seemed a little louder, the bass a hair heavier. Scherzer must have felt it, too. His four-seam fastball this season, according to FanGraphs, had averaged 94.7 mph. Yet there he was with a 97-mph heater to Bryce Harper, the second hitter he faced. (Yes, Harper was booed.) His first-inning fastballs averaged 96.5, more than a little hair on them. And there was more to come: three straight fastballs to absolutely destroy Brad Miller in the fourth — 96, 95 and 98, respectfully.
The capper, of course: a 98-mph seed past Miller for the first out of the seventh, then 97 mph to finish off Andrew Knapp for the second out of that frame and then an unfair slider down and away to put away pinch hitter J.T. Realmuto. With his 117th pitch done, he slapped his glove and twirled around. When he arrived at the top step of the dugout, hitting coach Kevin Long was the unfortunate soul who met him first. Max nearly took Long’s arm off with a high-five.
“He hit my hand pretty hard,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He was fired up. The whole dugout was fired up.”
For one of the few times all year. Maybe it took the ace to mess up his face to provide a pivot point for a team’s season. How long till the Nats announce the date on the 2020 calendar for “Black-eye Max” bobblehead night?
Scherzer has to be disconcerting to face even as his regular self. His right eye is blue. His left eye is brown. He struts off the mound, kicks at the dirt, blows out his nose like a bull. It’s a show. Every single time, it’s a show.
But staring back at that visage Wednesday? His right eye, the blue one, was dark and gloomy underneath. You want to say he looked as if he had been in a barroom brawl, but you know his response would be, “But you shoulda seen the other guy.”
This makes no sense for anyone else. Given the point in the season, the strain it takes to get through 162 games, wouldn’t wiser heads have said, “Take a day or three?” With rainouts Monday and Tuesday, the Nats had options. Patrick Corbin pitched — and pitched well, the importance of which shouldn’t be overlooked with everything else that happened Wednesday — in the opener. Erick Fedde was an option on regular rest in the nightcap. Scherzer could have pitched, say, Friday in the opener of a key series against division-leading Atlanta.
Except here’s the thing: Scherzer knows — as everyone around the Nats knows — that there are no series that aren’t key for this club right now.
“I knew I could post tonight,” Scherzer said. So he posted.
The doubleheader sweep pulls the Nats to 35-38, the first time they have been within three games of .500 since April 29. For the Nationals to get all the way back into the race — and even with the momentum from Wednesday, they still trail the Braves by eight games — they need Scherzer to will and inspire them.
Even before the whole seven-scoreless-with-a-busted-face thing, Scherzer was doing that. In his past six starts, he has a 0.88 ERA, has allowed 0.85 walks and hits per inning pitched and has 59 strikeouts in 41 innings.
And now a real moment that could define a comeback. What was this like? This was like, say, Alex Ovechkin in January 2008, when the Montreal Canadiens busted his nose with a check, when he took a puck to the mouth and needed stitches — and scored four goals anyway. Hockey players, though, consider mangled faces a rite of passage. Scherzer is the rare baseball player who could wander into a hockey dressing room and fit right in.
Now, the big question: Will that attitude, that willingness not just to play but perform, help flip this season? I’m a believer that one game in 162 can mean more than another. That’s what this felt like.
“That’s what we’re most focused on — just playing good baseball as a whole,” Scherzer said. “When we can do that, we know we can compete with anybody in this league, and we can beat some teams.”
They beat the Phillies on Wednesday night because Max Scherzer pitched when others would have sat. Scherzer doesn’t need another signature moment, and he provided one anyway. If that doesn’t serve as a turning point for this Nats season, nothing will.