CINCINNATI - What should have been a cakewalk - a feel-good story punctuated by another 10-strikeout start by Max Scherzer and another offensive outburst by Anthony Rendon - turned into another reminder of why the Nationals so desperately need to find a couple of reliable bullpen arms - and fast.
First the good news: The Nats won again Saturday night, prevailing in a 10-7 slugfest over the Reds that never should have gotten so close.
Now the flip side: Handed a 10-0 lead, rookie Austin Adams crumbled under the pressure of his major league debut in the eighth, not retiring a batter of the five he faced. After Oliver Pérez bailed him out, Trevor Gott allowed five runs without recording an out in the ninth, making things much too close for comfort. For a second straight night, Matt Grace had to come in and get the save, this time a one-inning effort instead of last night’s one-pitch performance.
Buoyed by a seven-run seventh that got them to double digits in the run column, the Nats should have been able to coast. But the crooked number almost wasn’t enough.
“Yeah, but you never know,” said manager Dusty Baker.
Adams threw only six of his 21 pitches for strikes, sailed a wild pitch over Adam Duvall’s head before plunking him, issued a bases-loaded walk and a run-scoring single. And just like that, his debut was over with an infinite ERA. Baker got the low-leverage situation he wanted to have Adams get his feet wet, only neither Adams nor the Reds cooperated.
“Well, the problem was just finding the strike zone,” Baker said of Adams. “It just seemed like he was a little amped up with high anxiety and that’s about as low a pressure situation as I could dream of putting a guy in. So you just have to talk to him and hopefully that was just a bad outing. Boy, those two guys didn’t get an out and gave up quite a few runs, so hopefully they’ll be better in the future.”
Now you know why general manager Mike Rizzo has been burning up the phone lines looking for relief help. It’s demoralizing for a club to watch a 10-0 lead almost disappear. And Scooter Gennett’s three-run homer that closed the scoring off Gott seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a game that was closer, Baker would have used different relievers. But what do you do when a 10-run lead almost isn’t enough?
Well, the Nats can start by being thankful for Rendon and Scherzer. Rendon hit two homers, including a grand slam that punctuated the seventh and made it 10-0, and drove in six runs. Scherzer walked a fine line between dominating and struggling early on, twice in the first three innings starting a frame off by putting two runners on base via Billy Hamilton hits and Zack Cozart walks, then turned to his favorite weapon, the strikeout. Of the first nine outs recorded, eight were by strikeout, including the side in the first and second.
“(Matt) Wieters, he did such a great job of throwing the right sequence,” Scherzer said. “When they’re looking fastball, we’re throwing off-speed. When they’re looking off-speed, we’re throwing fastballs. We did a great job of keeping them off-balance and never gave up the big hit. I gotta give a lot of credit to Matt for the job he did tonight.”
But Scherzer was done after six innings, a high pitch count (95) leaving him aware that he was approaching the point of no return.
“After how the outing was going and pitching out of those jams, I told (pitching coach Mike Maddux), ‘If I go out for the seventh, I’m gonna be on fumes. I’m not going to be able to finish that seventh.’ When I kind of told him that, that’s when I kinda made the call to take me out of the game,” Scherzer said.
Scherzer reacted to the early jams the same way he does when he’s hunting down a shutout or a strikeout record. He prowled the mound a little, bore down and laid waste to the guys in the batter’s box. When he was asked about finally pitching in Great American Ball Park for the first time, Scherzer deadpanned that even in Cincinnati, the mound was still 60 feet, six inches from the plate.
But Rendon has played behind the right-hander long enough to appreciate his competitive nature.
“He has that fire in him,” Rendon said. “Whenever he gets behind, when he struggles like that, he finds something deep down inside of him - I don’t know what it is - and he starts going after guys and he makes pitches.”
Rendon continued his assault on opposing pitchers, as if he were making them pay for being snubbed for the All-Star Game. The outburst - and the myriad of ways he contributes to the team - hasn’t gone unnoticed in his own clubhouse.
“This guy has as good a hands as anybody in baseball, offensively and defensively. And so Rendon’s a dangerous man,” Baker said. “We like having him behind (Daniel) Murphy because Murphy’s going to be on base a lot and the hitters preceding Murphy are going to be on base a lot, so it’s a lot of opportunities for Anthony. And we feel good with our middle of the order. They have got 60 RBIs. They’re all hitting .300. They’re carrying most of the weight on this team.”
Rendon seems to feel uncomfortable with the attention that goes along with such a hot streak. He doesn’t want to overthink it and prefers to focus on team goals rather than individual statistics.
“As long as we’re winning, that’s the only thing that matters,” he said. “Try to stretch this lead and try to keep on grinding.”