Max Scherzer was in a jam: two on, nobody out in the second inning Friday against the Atlanta Braves. The National League East leaders took three of four from the Washington Nationals last week, and they had effectively secured the division title and forced the Nationals to focus on fending off challengers for the wild card. Scherzer needed to become the dominant pitcher he had been earlier this season, and for a moment he did.

The right-hander unleashed a wicked fastball with late action that froze catcher Tyler Flowers for his first strikeout. Then he fooled shortstop Dansby Swanson with a change-up for his second before dispatching pitcher Mike Soroka with a slider to escape the spot. It was vintage Scherzer, but it proved fleeting in a 5-0 loss at Nationals Park.

Manager Dave Martinez pinned the trouble on Scherzer’s struggle to command his off-speed pitches, especially the change-up.

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“He was so-so,” Martinez said of Scherzer. “Threw a lot of pitches, obviously. Wasn’t as crisp, but he battled. We saw Max battle through it. Just threw a lot of pitches.”

Matt Joyce beat Scherzer in the fourth for an RBI single, and Swanson drove him home with a double. The right-hander gave up another run in the fifth before leaving after 99 pitches. Yet the defeat owed as much to an offense that managed just three hits, all doubles. The struggles could be explained by Soroka — he kept the ball down, used an effective change-up and maintained an aggressive approach that kept him ahead in counts — and the Nationals’ taxing previous 24 hours. They won a rain-delayed game in Minnesota against the Twins and took a red-eye home.

“Everyone’s exhausted, but I’ve said it before: No one’s going to feel bad about it,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “No one’s going to put this loss as an asterisk because we came in at 7 o’clock in the morning. It’s still a ballgame.”

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Frustration, caused by a lack of sleep or not, spilled over in the eighth inning. Howie Kendrick thought he checked a swing, and first base umpire Tim Timmons believed otherwise; Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar agreed with Kendrick. Bogar argued until Timmons ejected him and Martinez sprinted out to corral his coach. The manager later said he thought his coach was protecting the player because Kendrick had yelled down the line at Timmons.

The shutout, the Nationals’ 10th defeat in the past 14 meetings with the Braves, guaranteed a loss in the season series. The Nationals have dropped seven of their past 11. and their hold on an NL playoff spot grew a little more tenuous. Friday night’s loss trimmed their lead over the Cubs for the first wild-card spot to 2½ games, with the Brewers just another game back.

The more pressing issue, more than the offensive lapse, was how Scherzer looked in his fifth start since he returned from the injured list last month. The previous four starts showed strides in stamina and stuff, but the 35-year-old had been unable to combine and sustain those qualities. The Nationals are still waiting for him to regain the Cy Young-caliber form he displayed before his back barked this summer. They need that Scherzer more than ever as the playoff race tightens.

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Yet the ace mostly looked how he did last week in Atlanta. He flashed dominance — the late fastball life, the curveball movement — but remained susceptible to hiccups. The Braves drew him into long at-bats, and sometimes he won, such as striking out Freddie Freeman with his eighth pitch in the third, and sometimes he didn’t, such as allowing the run-scoring single to Joyce with his seventh pitch in the fourth. But no matter the result, his pitch count climbed higher and higher.

He left Sunday’s start at 98 pitches through six innings, and he departed Friday at 99 through five. He has still not hit 100 pitches or the seventh inning in any of the five starts, and he attributed the failure to do so Friday in part to his own location struggles and in part to the Braves’ lineup “grinding out” at-bats and forcing him to work from behind in counts.

“That’s something that’s got to change and [I need to] make an improvement upon,” Scherzer said of his location. “Just being able to locate the fastball a little bit better and force their hand a little bit better in the locations I want to.”

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The workhorse label matters less in the wild-card game. The Nationals wouldn’t necessarily rely on Tanner Rainey or Hunter Strickland to limit a deficit as the team did Friday; the pair allowed a home run and a run-scoring double, respectively. They could instead use another starter, such as Patrick Corbin, out of the bullpen. But the subtext of these shortened Scherzer outings matters more.

The veteran right-hander thinks he can hit 110 pitches, but his stuff hasn’t allowed him to get there. Some of the pitches that once got swings and misses are now fouled off, leaving him vulnerable in the ensuing domino effect. He is still seeking the stuff of separation. He has two starts left in the regular season — three if the team needs him in a potentially impactful game 162. Martinez trusts his starter who almost always comes through will again. The team is relying on Scherzer, but he’s running out of time.

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