Max Scherzer is in that second group. So is rookie Ben Braymer. They each started for the Nationals in a doubleheader Sunday at Marlins Park in Miami, and each had reasons to like their outings. Scherzer went 5⅔ innings in the opener, allowing the Miami Marlins just two unearned runs, but Miami won the game, 2-1, once the Nationals put the tying run on third with no outs in the seventh and final inning and left the bases loaded. Then Braymer was dominant in the second game, making the most of much better offense in a 15-0 win.
In his first career start and third career appearance, Braymer yielded just one hit in five scoreless innings. Kurt Suzuki, Trea Turner, Michael A. Taylor, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Victor Robles all homered in the second game, and the Nationals punched 18 hits in the win. The split brought them to 20-32 with only a week to go.
“Just repetitions, honestly, just going out there and getting an opportunity to pitch, doing it more than a few times, that brings a level of comfort, I guess,” Braymer said after the evening’s victory. “Knowing I’m here, I’m preparing, I’m one of the guys.”
“You have ups and downs, but you just have to go out there and continue to grind,” Scherzer said after the opening loss. “This is the big leagues. Sometimes you get beat, and that’s frustrating. As a whole, there’s things I’ve done well and things I haven’t.”
The damage in the first game came on a pair of errors. Washington ranks last in baseball in defensive runs saved, an advanced metric used to gauge individual and team defense. And Sunday, just six batters into Scherzer’s day, after a wild pitch moved Corey Dickerson and Garrett Cooper into scoring position, Luis García couldn’t make a charging play.
The result was a 1-0 deficit that was erased by a small rally in the fifth. Otherwise, Sandy Alcántara quieted the Nationals across six innings and 100 pitches. Scherzer had entered with a 4.04 ERA in 10 starts. In a handful of them he wilted in the later innings, letting opponents shrink leads or erase them. It is likely that when awards are handed out Scherzer will snap a seven-year streak of finishing in the top five of Cy Young voting. He is 36 years old now and has looked a bit human.
But Scherzer can still be that dominant ace. He flashed that against the Marlins, even as they juiced his pitch count with 24 foul balls in the first four innings. He retired eight straight between the first and fourth. He struck out six and didn’t walk a batter before his last inning. The sixth, though, was when the defense lapsed again.
With the score still tied at 1, the bases loaded and two outs, Scherzer induced a grounder on his 119th pitch. He appeared to be out of a jam. He drifted toward the first base dugout. But first baseman Eric Thames couldn’t handle a low throw from third baseman Carter Kieboom. Starling Marte was safe at first, Monte Harrison scored, and after a spin in frustration and a grimace Scherzer left with the Nationals trailing. They soon lost because neither the offense or defense could support him.
“You think you’re out of the inning, and then you’re not,” Scherzer said of the fateful error. “That’s just baseball. That happens.”
“When you play those one-run games, you have to play good defense. You can’t give the other team outs,” Martinez added. “And we did that the first game. It was disappointing. It really was.”
Braymer, on the other hand, took the mound for the second game with a 3-0 lead. That was provided by Turner’s leadoff shot and Suzuki hitting a two-run bloop double that clipped the infield dirt. Braymer would protect the advantage with a steady stream of off-speed pitches. His curveball got him a looking strikeout in the first. That and his change-up allowed the 26-year-old to work around a leadoff walk to Jon Berti.
The left-hander didn’t allow a hit until Jesús Aguilar singled with two outs in the fourth, when the Nationals already led 7-0. But he worked around that, too, ending the threat when Matt Joyce flied out to right. Then the Nationals kept tacking on.
Turner, who reached three times, singled to bring in Jake Noll in the fifth. Juan Soto, who reached four times, followed with a ground-rule double. Cabrera, who also reached four times, then cleared the bases with a three-run homer to the upper deck in right-center to make it 11-0.
That left Braymer with one last inning. On Sunday morning, Martinez told reporters that Braymer was stretched out for 60 to 75 pitches. But that was before he carved through Miami’s lineup and arrived in the fifth. He sandwiched his third walk with two groundouts. That brought up Berti, who had walked twice in two plate appearances, and Braymer struck him out looking on his 86th offering.
“Throwing off-speed pitches in fastball counts and throwing more of them consecutively,” Braymer said of what he has fine-tuned this summer. “I really tried to do that today. I knew I didn’t have my best fastball command.”
It was a change-up that froze Berti’s bat. Braymer subtly pumped a fist while picking up his rosin bag. Once in the dugout, a short gem behind him, Braymer was wrapped in a hug by his manager. The embrace was well-earned.