ATLANTA - Max Scherzer scoffed after his last start when asked if his ring finger injury was finally behind him. His performance tonight would seem to confirm once and for all it’s no longer a topic for discussion.
Scherzer dominated the Braves with seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball, appearing to talk his way into taking the mound for his final frame and building up his pitch count to 116, leading the Nationals to a 3-1 victory that wasn’t sealed until Shawn Kelley replaced Blake Treinen in the bottom of the ninth to avoid another bullpen disaster.
Handed a three-run lead when he took the mound, Treinen was able to record only one out, allowing two singles and then issuing back-to-back walks, one of them forcing in a run. Manager Dusty Baker had no choice but to pull his beleaguered closer after that and summon Kelley to clean up the mess. The veteran reliever responded by recording the final two outs to earn his first save of the season and raise new questions about where the Nationals’ relief corps goes from here.
It wasn’t entirely over, though, until plate umpire C.B. Bucknor, who had an adventurous night behind the plate, called both teams back onto the field after it appeared Chase d’Arnaud had struck out to end the game. Bucknor eventually ruled d’Arnaud fouled off Kelley’s 1-2 pitch, forcing a bizarre reconvening on the field. Kelley then struck out d’Arnaud for real on his next pitch to officially end the game.
Before the late drama, Scherzer was the star of this one, putting together his best start of the young season and extending himself well beyond the 104 pitches he threw in his prior outing. The ace right-hander allowed only two singles and three walks, striking out seven.
The Nationals threatened several times early against right-hander Mike Foltynewicz but were done in either by poor baserunning (Bryce Harper was picked off second base) or poor umpiring (Bucknor punched out Jayson Werth on two pitches well outside the strike zone to end the top of the fourth).
They finally broke through in the fifth, thanks to a rally started by the bottom of their order. Matt Wieters led off with a double (already his sixth extra-base hit) and scored on Wilmer Difo’s single to right. After advancing to second on Scherzer’s sacrifice bunt, Difo scored on Adam Eaton’s RBI single to center.
That two-run cushion was enough for Scherzer, who was effective if not particularly efficient in mowing down the Braves lineup. The right-hander put up six straight zeros to open his evening, but he needed 101 pitches to do that, leading to the big decision of the game for Baker.
When Scherzer walked off the mound after ending the sixth, Baker stuck out his fist toward Scherzer, appearing to tell his ace he had done well and was done for the night. Scherzer, who didn’t return the fist-bump to his manager, then got into a conversation with Baker and appeared to have won the discussion.
Scherzer was allowed to bat for himself in the top of the seventh, then re-took the mound for the bottom of the inning as left-hander Sammy Solis began warming in the pen. He didn’t need any relievers to finish the frame for him, retiring the side and punctuating his outing with two more strikeouts to give him seven overall, his pitch count reaching 116.
The Nationals added an insurance run for their bullpen in the top of the eighth when Harper and Zimmerman each doubled, extending the lead to 3-0.