After the most efficient shutout of Max Scherzer’s career, which came at a most opportune moment for his struggling Washington Nationals, first-year Manager Dave Martinez presented Scherzer with second base.
Most starters would get the lineup card after a night like that, a game ball, something more traditional, but Scherzer had done the shutout thing before. His résumé is so long that a two-hit shutout in a 2-0 win over the Atlanta Braves in which he struck out 10 and didn’t walk a batter probably fell somewhere on page two. But that résumé did not include a stolen base until the seventh inning of Monday night’s win at Nationals Park, so Martinez decided to give him the base in mock celebration.
But Scherzer was not feigning celebration after his 102nd pitch struck out Ender Inciarte to end the game and snap a five-game losing streak that felt much longer to the Nationals, who are now 5-5. Through 10 games last season, the eventual 97-game winners were 6-4.
Scherzer has thrown two no-hitters and nine complete games. His fifth career shutout was as good as any of them, though he dismissed the notion of a historical showing afterward.
He said the Braves swung early, so his pitch count stayed down — nothing to it. He said he had a good night but didn’t set out to put his team on his back for nine innings to save its depleted bullpen — he just wanted to throw seven strong. He talked as much about that stolen base as he did about his pitching.
Who besides Scherzer can carry his team and end up talking about a stolen base? Who, besides these beleaguered Nationals at this moment, needed a shutout more?
“He picked us up tonight,” Martinez said. “He really did.”
Losing streaks as long as the one they snapped Monday, in a sport so finicky, bring a fog to those enduring them. It is the same fog that settles over slumping hitters, the one that obscures visibility of brighter memories and leaves doubts festering in the darkness.
Everyone in the Nationals’ clubhouse knew they were capable of winning, knew they would win again soon, knew the frustrations of the streak would pass. But only a win can burn off a fog like that, particularly early in the season, when the sample of success is small and the collective memory of a new team with a rookie manager is short.
But wins don’t come because they’re needed, just as hits don’t come the harder one tries. The breaks that end a losing streak come in their own time, in their own ways, and one finally came the Nationals’ way in the bottom of the first Monday when Howie Kendrick doubled just inside the third base line — not into a glove, not a few inches foul — to bring home two runs and give Scherzer a lead.
The Braves picked Scherzer apart in his last start. Their left-handed-heavy lineup fouled off pitches until he ran out of ways to put their hitters away. Just as they did last week, the Braves loaded their lineup with every possible lefty. This time, Scherzer picked them apart.
Instead of allowing long, pesky at-bats, Scherzer dismissed them quickly, baiting them early in counts, or at least not waiting to bury them when he got two strikes. Through four innings, he had faced the minimum. Through five innings, he had thrown 60 pitches. In his first outing against the Braves, he needed 110 pitches to get through five.
“Just tried to make a little mechanical tweak tonight,” said Scherzer, who worked on keeping his fingers on top of the ball at his release point because he felt they had been slipping off to the side.
“But really the biggest thing was that on the first pitch, 0-0, I collected a lot of first-pitch outs. They were aggressive early in the count.”
The Nationals desperately needed Scherzer to pitch deep into the game. Sunday night’s loss to the New York Mets was a low point for many reasons, namely that it took 12 innings and six relievers and left the bullpen drained. So Martinez had few options if Scherzer could not last, fewer if he struggled mightily. The Nationals needed Scherzer to be efficient against the one team that makes him claw for every inch. Scherzer somehow gave them more.
He led off the seventh with a single of his own. Then the two-time reigning National League Cy Young Award winner took off for second, a move he and Martinez had talked about all week. Martinez said Scherzer could go if the first baseman gave him room but begged him not to hurt himself sliding. Scherzer told him he had the best pop-up slide in the majors. He probably meant it.
On Monday, when the opportunity presented itself, Scherzer took off running in an all-limbs-on-deck sprint, like a biker trying to head up a hill in too high a gear. He made it, and by the time Scherzer stood safely at second, the spell subduing the Nationals seemed to have broken. Suddenly, absolutely anything was possible again.
“Finally! I’ve been yelling at Matt Williams and I’ve been yelling at Dusty Baker, like, ‘Let me go!’ ” said Scherzer, who was entirely serious about the matter. “There’s obviously situations where I feel like I’m fast enough. If [Jayson Werth] can steal a base, so can I.”
So ended the Nationals’ longest losing streak since 2016, with Max Scherzer talking about a stolen base instead of his 66th game of 10 or more strikeouts, instead of having the sixth-most 10-strikeout, no-walk games of all time. So ended that streak, which showed them that the NL East will pose a challenge this season, which does not mean it has become suddenly unwinnable.
But Scherzer’s performance gave the Nationals room to chuckle again, to give away a base to a man who’d always wanted to take one, and reminded them that no losing streak lasts forever — though of course they knew that, or said they did. The ace pitcher took off running when they needed him most, and caught fire just in time to lead them out of the fog.
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