Sometimes the news is so good that you just need to celebrate — even if it’s at somebody else’s expense. In this case, the Washington Nationals, after learning that Max Scherzer has declared himself healthy and ready to pitch in the majors again almost immediately, rejoiced with a party that bordered on a baseball orgy — at the expense of the Cincinnati Reds.
In one span during the fifth and sixth innings Wednesday at Nationals Park, the Nats scored 16 runs while only making three outs.
You had to see it not to believe it: 16 runs and 15 hits, including three homers to center . In the 10-run fifth inning alone, all nine Nats in the lineup scored a run and greedy Kurt Suzuki scored twice. Some in the crowd of 23,596 even threw mock boos at Nats who finally made an out.
Perhaps out of mercy, the Nats appeared to lose interest in scoring after those eruptions and only won, 17-7, running their dazzling record to 46-24 since their nadir at 19-31 on May 23. Since then, their run differential is an impressive plus-100.
The day’s key hitter was pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who won his 15th game. His sacrifice bunt and run-scoring bloop hit were crucial to the Nats’ first two runs and appeared to deflate Reds ace Trevor Bauer (2.21 ERA last year, 204 strikeouts this season), who allowed a staggering nine earned runs.
Bauer has some of the most electric stuff in the game, with a six-pitch arsenal that includes a dazzling curveball, all thrown at various speeds. Top pitchers seldom admit after a drubbing that a lineup has dumbfounded them, but Bauer, after saying that he was hitting his spots with all his pitches and throwing 96 mph, told reporters that he had been reduced to wondering whether he should “invent a pitch” or “a new arm angle.”
As the Nats have gotten healthier over the season and added key veteran bench players such as the switch-hitting Asdrúbal Cabrera to go with Gerardo Parra and Howie Kendrick, they have been able to customize batting orders depending on the style of pitcher they face. And they have shown a knack for grinding down starters with long at-bats. Bauer needed 101 pitches to get only 13 outs. He threw 13 curveballs to Trea Turner in three plate appearances. But Turner battled and finally got two sharp breakers he could reach — for a long sacrifice fly to open the scoring and an RBI single up the middle for a 3-1 lead.
That single seemed to deflate Bauer, who immediately gave up homers on consecutive pitches to Adam Eaton (a three-run bomb) and Anthony Rendon. Both blasts flew far over the center field fence — just like the ball Bauer heaved last month in disgust in Cleveland when Manager Terry Francona came to the mound to relieve him. It was his last “pitch” in Cleveland, catalyzing a trade to the Reds.
The notion is growing, with this battering of Bauer, coupled with the imminent return of Scherzer, plus the glowing health and evil intentions of the Nats’ batting order, that these sneaky Washington guys, somewhat under the radar, are realizing the lofty expectations many held for them at the start of the season. This three-game sweep of the Reds, including first-rate starts by both Erick Fedde and Joe Ross, featured more data points.
The Nats held Grateful Dead Night on Tuesday, but the hallucinations continued into Wednesday’s game. More mind-altering sights may be on tap. Among them: Scherzer — Mad Max, mound warrior — serving as “an opener,” the pitcher who begins a game with no intention of working more than two or three innings.
Get ready to see it, probably this weekend when Scherzer goes to the mound with the shortest of leashes and a second-year manager in Dave Martinez who is unaccustomed to asserting himself against the wishes of stars.
As giddy as their rout of the Reds may have been, the Nats will face serious and touchy decisions soon, both in how fast to bring Scherzer back to a full workload and how often to run closer Sean Doolittle back out to the mound. Doolittle has looked tired, and he has allowed eight runs over his past eight appearances.
Neither pitcher — yet — appears to have any serious injury. But both are dealing with concerns. Doolittle gave a big grin at his locker about new Nats reliever Daniel Hudson getting a four-out save Tuesday and Thursday being an off day. Three days without throwing a ball! “This came at exactly the right time,” he said.
Scherzer only wishes that he was certain about how he should handle his return. “Everything felt good [Tuesday, following a two-inning simulated game]. But more importantly was how I felt today. That’s been the biggest challenge,” said Scherzer who, for the first time in his long career, has gone to bed thinking everything is great after throwing full-tilt but has awaked with soreness during his two IL trips.
“That’s why I’ve been scratching my head, left and right, trying to figure this thing out,” said Scherzer, who admits he still has little idea how many pitches he can throw without the strain reappearing.
“This was kind of an endurance injury. . . . The upper pitch counts, I guess that’s when I was injuring myself, because nothing else made sense,” Scherzer said. “I don’t second-guess anything. . . . It’s just now trying to understand what this injury is and what I have to do to train around it and how to pitch around it as well.”
Scoring 17 runs is nice. But Scherzer’s words are genuinely scary. By the time he returns, he will have pitched only once in more than 40 days — a span when the Nats so far have, remarkably, gone 19-13.
Baseball never lets a manager sleep soundly, even on an off day after a 10-run win as a cherry on top of a 12-week red-hot run. Now Martinez, as well as the Nats’ docs and front-office gurus, need a plan and contingencies for everything that could derail the seasons of either Scherzer or Doolittle.
Keep them cruising as they normally do when they are feeling right, and all the Nats’ other strengths that have built over this season — from team morale to bench depth to (maybe) a six-deep rotation to star play from Rendon, Juan Soto and Turner — seem even more impressive. There’s even hope that a lengthened, though far from fully fixed, bullpen could be the next cheerful development.
This is how fine baseball seasons mount upon themselves, like surf building as it comes to shore, gaining power as it goes. The Nats are starting to have that sense of riding their own wave. But seasons can crash before they reach their destination with bad luck, an injury or poor judgment.
With 42 games left, that’s the exhilarating, stomach-flipping place where the Nationals now dwell. That’s the mainspring tension of this six-month baseball thing. And it’s just going to tighten.