But all of that finally flipped in the ninth inning. Facing a one-run deficit, the Nationals’ bottom of the order grinded out at-bats, practicing patience as Phillies closer Hector Neris imploded.
By the end of it — after Matt Wieters singled, Howie Kendrick took a 96-mph fastball to the ribs, Michael A. Taylor walked and Pedro Severino worked another walk to bring home the tying run — Wilmer Difo was being mobbed by teammates celebrating his walk-off single in a 5-4 victory. In five batters, the afternoon changed from a frustrating getaway day to Washington’s best win of the young season.
With the comeback, the Nationals finished 7-3 on their homestand and improved to 3-8 in one-run games. Washington (18-17), which has won seven of its past eight, now heads west for the second time this season. In eight days, the Nationals have climbed from six games back in the National League East to two behind the first-place Atlanta Braves.
“Those are the wins that really, really good teams are able to find ways to get,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said. “That’s huge for us. This is a big win.”
For a couple of hours Sunday afternoon, Scherzer and the Phillies’ Jake Arrieta, who combined have won the past three NL Cy Young Awards, took turns perplexing hitters with contrasting approaches. Scherzer was striking out batters at a historic pace — even by today’s inflated strikeout standards — while Arrieta was pitching to contact to hush Washington’s bats.
Opponents typically load their lineups with left-handed hitters against Scherzer because the numbers illustrate the obvious: He is poison for righties. Entering Sunday, Scherzer had struck out 47.6 percent of the right-handed hitters he faced in his first seven starts. That was the highest rate in the majors. The Phillies (18-15) stocked their lineup with six right-handed hitters anyway. The result was predictable yet still mesmerizing.
It took Scherzer just four innings to post his 69th career double-digit strikeout game and his fifth this season. He struck out two each in the first and second innings before accumulating nine strikeouts over the next three frames. At one point, he fanned seven batters in a row. He was flummoxing righties with his slider and change-up. His cutter gave the only lefty and two switch hitters in Philadelphia’s lineup trouble. His fastball did not discriminate in its annihilation.
He finished with 15 strikeouts in 6⅓ innings, becoming the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out 15 while recording 19 outs or fewer. It was the fifth 15-plus-strikeout game of his career and his fourth as a National — the first since his 20-strikeout gem in May 2016 that matched the MLB record. He now leads the majors with 80 strikeouts. And yet Scherzer lamented that he fell behind batters more than he would have liked, prompting his exit with one out in the seventh, which immediately cost the Nationals because 15 strikeouts don’t help produce runs.
“I had my pitches, but I just kept falling behind in the count,” said Scherzer, who threw 111 pitches. “Didn’t do a good job creating count leverage for myself.”
The Nationals’ bats were silent against Arrieta after Matt Adams’s solo homer in the second inning. Arrieta completed six innings with just two strikeouts but limited Washington to two hits and two walks. It was an unusual performance in today’s baseball landscape but effective nonetheless.
Relying on the razor-thin margin nearly cost Scherzer in the sixth after he surrendered a double and hit a batter. But he got Maikel Franco to ground into an inning-ending double play and unleashed a fist pump while walking off the mound, illustrating the enormity of the sequence. The Nationals were just holding on, until they weren’t.
Scherzer started the seventh despite his pitch count of 104, and he gave up a leadoff single to Pedro Florimon, one of the three non-righties in Philadelphia’s lineup. He then struck out Jorge Alfaro for the third time on three pitches before Manager Dave Martinez surfaced to pull him. He walked off to a standing ovation that he acknowledged as he approached the dugout, and then he watched the lead evaporate instantly.
Four pitches later, Nick Williams tied the score with a bloop single off Sammy Solis. A few minutes after that, Brandon Kintzler surrendered an RBI double to Rhys Hoskins and a run-scoring single to Odubel Herrera. And in the eighth, the Nationals’ Carlos Torres surrendered a solo home run to Franco.
But Washington’s offense finally awoke from its slumber in the eighth. After striking out Taylor, Philadelphia reliever Luis Garcia walked the struggling Moises Sierra, which led to his removal. Tommy Hunter then walked Difo to bring up Bryce Harper. Hunter struck out Harper, who looked uncomfortable the entire at-bat, but Trea Turner followed with an infield single that only a handful of players in baseball could have beaten out. That extended the inning to Anthony Rendon, who lashed a two-run single to cut the Phillies’ lead to one.
“I told the boys: ‘Hey, keep battling. It’s not over,’ ” Martinez said.
From there, Doolittle handled the ninth inning with two strikeouts, and the bottom of the Nationals’ order applied the finishing touches against the erratic Neris, who created a bases-loaded jam that prompted Philadelphia Manager Gabe Kapler to bring in an outfielder as a fifth infielder. He was banking on Neris, a splitter thrower, inducing a groundball with the score tied.
Neris threw one, but it was elevated, and Difo capitalized, extending his hitting streak to nine games with a line drive to center between the two remaining outfielders, igniting the Nationals’ first walk-off celebration this season on a day when the odds seemed stacked against one.
“For me, the feeling’s back to where it was last year, in the second half, when we were grinding some wins out even though we weren’t at full strength,” Doolittle said. “That’s what it feels like. We’re getting contributions from lots of different guys and finding ways to win.”