It’s easy to look at the final three weeks of the regular season, with a division title already wrapped up and a heavy emphasis on ensuring everyone’s healthy for the postseason, as a meaningless string of games for the Nationals.
Max Scherzer vehemently disagrees with that notion. And tonight’s game, which ended as an ugly 8-2 loss to the Braves, provided evidence of his point of view. Not in spite of the fact he threw 116 pitches, the last 19 of them after he easily could have been pulled by his manager. But because of the fact he threw 116 pitches.
“Look, this is why these games are meaningful,” Scherzer said. “I know you guys keep throwing that word around. I needed to go out tonight and pitch deep into this ballgame. And I did.”
To be clear, Scherzer wasn’t happy that those final 19 pitches - they all came within a span of five Atlanta batters in the top of the seventh - led to five runs crossing the plate and turned a tie game into a lopsided loss. Those 19 pitches alone caused his ERA to skyrocket from 2.34 to 2.59, perhaps enough to make a significant dent in his case for a second straight Cy Young Award.
But in this instance, Scherzer and the Nationals coaching staff prioritized extending his arm to throw more pitches than he had in more than a month over the end result of this one game. That, they insisted, was a necessary step in their ace’s preparation for the playoffs.
“That was the gameplan,” said manager Dusty Baker, who heard some boos from the crowd of 24,830 when he finally removed Scherzer from the game. “We wanted to take him out, but you gotta stick with the gameplan. We were thinking long run vs. short run.”
Here’s how it all played out ...
After six innings, this game was tied 2-2. Scherzer hadn’t been in top form, but he had been effective enough, with a pitch count of 97. He could have called it a night right there.
But that was never the Nationals’ intention. Scherzer, who is as detailed as any pitcher in baseball when it comes to specific game preparation and in-game analysis of his workload, had told Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux in advance he wanted to extend himself tonight.
His pitch totals in his previous six starts had mostly been on the low end: 10, 114, 107, 100, 75, 104. Both of the sub-100 starts had involved an early exit due to a minor injury. He also went 15 days between starts last month when a stiff neck landed him on the disabled list.
Scherzer, who is scheduled to get an extra day of rest before his next outing, told Baker and Maddux he wanted to go 110-to-120 pitches in this game.
“I thought that would help benefit me going forward, and then looking ahead into the postseason, to pitch with some extra fatigue,” he said. “Usually I’ve been able to do that in the past. But because of all the little injuries I’ve been dealing with, I haven’t really been able to get past 100 pitches for quite a while. So I knew it was important for me, going into that start tonight, to be able to get to that level.”
Trouble is, Scherzer looked gassed during that fateful seventh inning. He walked Lane Adams on five pitches. He walked Jace Peterson on eight pitches. He then walked Ozzie Albies on five pitches, most of them well out of the zone.
At this point, Scherzer’s pitch count stood at 114, with No. 2 batter Dansby Swanson at the plate. Sammy Solis had begun warming in the bullpen after the first walk, but Baker said the left-hander was being prepared to face Freddie Freeman (who followed Swanson). Brandon Kintzler had begun warming after the second walk, but the right-hander was being prepared to face cleanup hitter Matt Kemp.
Maddux went to the mound to ask Scherzer if he wanted to stick with the plan, stay in the game and face Swanson with the bases loaded and nobody out.
“I was honest and saying: ‘Hey, I feel strong right now,’” Scherzer said. “I felt like I could execute pitches and get guys out. ... From a physical standpoint, that’s what I felt. I still had those bullets left in my arm. Hey, it’s not fun. I’ve always said you learn more about yourself after pitch 100 than you do in the first 100. Well, this is time to learn.”
Scherzer threw ball one to Swanson, then grooved a slider over the plate. The rookie shortstop laced a sharp single to left. Two runs scored, and when Howie Kendrick’s throw sailed over the cutoff man and all the way to plate, Swanson took second.
That proved important, because with first base now open, Baker chose to intentionally walk Freeman, rather than bring Solis in to face the slugger. And now, with the bases again loaded, Baker finally walked to the mound to remove his starter, whose pitch count stood at 116.
“I know it looked ugly,” Baker said. “It looked ugly to you. It looked ugly to us, and the fans and everybody else. But if you have a gameplan, you want to stick with it as much and as long as you can.”
What happened next only made matters worse. Kintzler entered to face Kemp, and his first pitch (a slider) was launched to left field for a grand slam that turned a 4-2 game into an 8-2 rout, with the first seven of those runs charged to Scherzer.
Afterward, the easy response was to question the manager and the pitching coach’s handling of their ace, especially when considering the team’s secure position three weeks before the postseason.
The ace, however, wants you to know there was more to the story than that. He believes he needed to do this tonight. He believes it will pay off next month.
He asks you to trust him on this.
“My arm has been feeling so good,” Scherzer said. “I’m feeling so fresh right now. It’s weird to be fresh in September. Look, I’m never going to sit here and say I love going out there and walking guys, even in the seventh inning. But look, I got something out of it. I pushed my pitch count deep. Even though I wasn’t throwing strikes, and my off-speed stuff wasn’t sharp there in the seventh, I took a step forward of where I need to be for the postseason. That’s all you can really ask for.”