Max Scherzer has spoiled the Washington Nationals. The $210 million right-hander’s starts have come to be appointment viewing, greatness and history expected each time. But even the best have off days.
“Max is a human being still,” Nationals first baseman Clint Robinson said.
Added Manager Matt Williams: “He’s had his nights a lot lately, but [Tuesday] wasn’t.”
After battling errant command and the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup, Scherzer left Tuesday’s 5-0 loss with two outs in the fifth inning, the first time he hasn’t completed at least five innings in more than a year, a span of 385 days and 36 starts. Scherzer’s start put the banged-up Nationals in a hole they couldn’t overcome against the Reds and ace Johnny Cueto, who allowed two hits and struck out 11 in a masterful complete game. The Nationals have lost all five games against the Reds this season.
“At the end of day, this is not one of the games where you beat yourself up,” Scherzer said. “You just don’t have it. When you think you have it and don’t make pitches, that’s when you start throwing chairs.”
Scherzer allowed five runs, tying a season high, on seven hits, four of them for extra bases. In his previous four starts, Scherzer allowed four runs and only five extra-base hits. Yet from the first batter he faced, it was evident Scherzer’s command was off.
Brandon Phillips opened the game by smacking a single to left off Scherzer’s 3-2 slider, his strikeout pitch. Matt den Dekker threw the ball back into the infield, but second baseman Dan Uggla let it get under his glove. The error allowed Phillips to move into scoring position.
Joey Votto tormented the Nationals all night, and it began with his first at-bat. He lined a double off the base of the right field scoreboard that gave the Reds a 1-0 lead. With one out, Jay Bruce battled Scherzer, fouling off three pitches before he drilled a low inside fastball high off the right field wall, giving the Reds a 2-0 lead.
Scherzer has been scored on in the first inning only one other time this season: his April 23 start against the St. Louis Cardinals. He turned more deliberate than normal in the first inning, trying to find his command.
“Can’t put a finger on it,” Scherzer said. “I just think it’s one of those things. It just happens. When it happens, just move on. If it happens again next start, where I don’t feel like I have location or can execute pitches, then I’ll start critiquing it and trying to figure out why. I just think it’s one of those days you go out there and it’s not very good.”
Scherzer stumbled again when he faced the Reds’ lineup a second time. He likes attacking batters with his fastball, but Votto was prepared for it. With an 0-2 count, Scherzer fired a fastball over the plate to Votto, who deposited it into the Nationals’ bullpen in right field for a 3-0 lead.
Billy Hamilton doubled with one out in the fifth and then stole third base. Scherzer then hit Phillips with a 3-2 pitch before Votto’s RBI single and Todd Frazier’s sacrifice fly pushed the margin to 5-0.
“I’ve had stinkers before,” Scherzer said. “This is part of the deal, part of the gig. I don’t get fazed by them anymore. I still feel like I’m throwing the ball well.”
After Bruce singled off Scherzer with two outs in the fifth, Williams emerged from the dugout. He took the ball from Scherzer, who walked into the Nationals’ dugout with his head down. It was a rare sight at such an early stage in the game — Scherzer came into Tuesday’s start averaging a major league-best 7.4 innings per start.
“The fact that skip comes out to get him and [Scherzer] says, ‘Man, I want to stay in this one,’ ” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “That’s the guy you want, the guy you want holding the ball. The numbers might not have been there, but a lot of good stuff happened like that. That’s the first time we’ve seen Max deal with adversity, and he handled it like a boss.”
Williams replaced Scherzer with Taylor Jordan, who provided 3
Playing without injured Denard Span and Yunel Escobar, the Nationals had few chances against Cueto but squandered their best two in the first and fourth innings. Cueto yielded a fifth-inning triple to Desmond before striking out the next five straight with his array of cutting and dipping pitches. He retired the final 15 Nationals he faced.
“You kind of fall into the trap of letting [Cueto] kind of dictate your timing,” Robinson said. “He does a good job of doing his little wobbles and his quick pitches, and all that of stuff. It kind of throws you off. He doesn’t mess up over the plate. He just doesn’t make mistakes. We just kind of let him in there tonight. He threw a good ballgame, but we definitely didn’t help ourselves in a lot of at-bats.”
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Box score: Reds 5, Nationals 0