ATLANTA - Had the bottom of the ninth gone according to plan and without incident last night, the biggest takeaway from the Nationals’ 3-1 victory over the Braves would have been Max Scherzer’s dominant start.
As it was, Scherzer’s outing took a backseat to the chaos that was the bottom of the ninth, from Blake Trienen’s implosion to Shawn Kelley’s takeover as closer to C.B. Bucknor’s blown call on what everyone thought was the final pitch of the game but wound up as only the second-to-last pitch of the game.
But Scherzer’s start should not be overlooked, nor will it be here.
The pertinent facts are that the right-hander went seven innings, did not allow a run, surrendered only two singles and pitched around three walks. But there’s more context to this start than the mere numbers.
The key moment for Scherzer came after he finished the bottom of the sixth. As he walked back to the dugout, his pitch count at 101, manager Dusty Baker stuck out his arm in search of a fist-bump, essentially telling his starter: “Good job tonight. We’re going to the bullpen now.”
Scherzer, though, wouldn’t reciprocate Baker’s sought-after fist-bump. The two instead engaged in a conversation.
“Max wanted to go out there in the seventh,” Baker said. “He knows we’ve been struggling some in the bullpen, and he said: ‘I got 110 pitches or more in me.’ And I said: ‘Well you’re at (101) right now.’ He said: ‘I promise you that I got some more.’ “
Scherzer’s version of the encounter?
“I knew where I was at physically, and he thought I was done,” the pitcher said. “He didn’t think I had anything left in the tank. I said: ‘Hey, I’m still good until 110 pitches. I still have 10 pitches left in me.’ I knew they had three right-handed hitters coming up. I said: ‘Hey, if you want it, I got it.’ And he looked over who he wanted to match up with, and after he and (pitching coach Mike Maddux) talked, I was cleared to go back out. So it was just a conversation that typically happens.”
It may be typical, but typically a manager will win that argument with his starting pitcher. Scherzer, on the other hand, has established a reputation for being able to talk his way back into a game.
“That’s where you’ve got to be honest with your manager when you can go and you can’t go,” the right-hander said. “And sometimes if you give a specific number (of pitches you have left), it gives them more confidence and what he wants to hear. I told him I’m good, and he gave me the ball.”
Scherzer rewarded his manager for the show of faith. He retired the side in the seventh, striking out the last two batters he faced to leave his pitch count at 116.
“He’s always telling our other pitchers it’s a shutdown inning, and so he went out and showed them how to shut down after you get a couple runs,” Baker said. “What I like most about him is just his sheer drive and determination to compete and to win.”
It’s still mid-April, and Scherzer did not have a normal spring training while recovering from a stress fracture in his right ring finger. So how does he weigh the pros and cons of staying in to drive up his pitch count in a situation like this?
“You just listen to your arm,” he said. “That’s where I knew I was strong, and I’m so glad I got even to (116). So my thing is ... two things here. One, the last 15 pitches of every outing usually dictate how the outing goes. And tonight, to be able to have a clean seventh, when we needed it, that was a good thing.
“And the other thing is: You learn more about yourself on the pitches after 100 than you do on the first 100. And so for me to get up to (116) tonight, I got to learn something about myself and I think I can take that. That’s a good thing moving forward, because I was still sharp in the seventh.”