LOS ANGELES - Ballplayers don’t like to make a big deal out of any one individual game, especially the 20th game of a 162-game season. There are, however, exceptions, and Max Scherzer versus Clayton Kershaw certainly qualified.
Only 12 times before in major league history had two pitchers with three Cy Young Awards apiece gone head to head, none in the last dozen years. So even the principal participants tonight were willing to concede they had some extra juice when they took the mound.
“Yeah, I mean, isn’t that obvious?” Scherzer said. “I mean, yeah. I’ve always said you don’t measure yourself against the worst. You measure yourself against the best.”
Scherzer went up against one of the best tonight and did exactly what he has done each of the last two seasons: outpitch Kershaw. The Nationals ace wasn’t at his very best, but he was plenty good enough in allowing only one run over six innings. And thanks to some aggressive-but-quality at-bats by his teammates against Kershaw, Scherzer and the Nats walked out of Dodger Stadium with an impressive 5-2 victory to open the West Coast portion of their nine-game road trip.
In front of a raucous crowd of 50,211 on fireworks night at Chavez Ravine, the Nationals took control early and never let it go, winning for the third time in four games and getting themselves back to .500 (10-10) after a ragged start to the season.
“You want to treat every game the same, but a packed house, Friday night at Dodger Stadium, it’s always exciting,” said reliever Sammy Solís, who recorded two key outs in the seventh. “The heart starts pumping a little more than it usually does.”
Hearts throughout the venerable old ballpark surely were pounding in frustration when the hometown hero got ambushed in the top of the first by an aggressive Nats lineup.
Manager Davey Martinez said before the game the best way to beat Kershaw is to jump on him early in the count. Well, the Nationals took that to the extreme right out of the chute, with Trea Turner, Howie Kendrick and Bryce Harper all putting the left-hander’s first pitch in play, Turner doubling, taking third on Kendrick’s fly ball and scoring on Harper’s single through the right side of the infield. Ryan Zimmerman worked the count a bit more before lacing an RBI double to left-center to put the Nats up 2-0 and leave Kershaw and the crowd in a state of shock.
“There’s really no choice; he’s going to come right at you,” said Zimmerman, who went 2-for-3 against Kershaw to give himself five hits and 15 total bases in a span of seven at-bats. “You’re not going to get his pitch count up. He doesn’t walk a ton of people. Might as well be ready to try to hit the first pitch you can. The deeper into the at-bat you go with him, the harder it gets, especially if he can get ahead of you. It worked out good tonight. But he’s still pretty good.”
The Nationals didn’t let up against Kershaw, tacking on two more runs in the middle innings, getting a perfectly placed squeeze bunt from Turner in the fifth and a two-out RBI single from Michael A. Taylor in the sixth to expand the lead to 4-0.
They wound up with nine hits off Kershaw, only the second time the lefty has surrendered that many in the last 22 months. And with only a couple of exceptions, they weren’t cheapies, with well-struck balls off the bats of nearly everyone in the lineup at some point.
“We wanted to go in there and attack him early, get the ball in the strike zone and be ready to hit it,” Martinez said. “And the boys went up there and did that.”
With a four-run cushion, Scherzer was free to go after the Dodgers lineup. He was quite effective, carrying a one-hitter into the fifth, but some uncharacteristic command issues (three walks, two hit batters) helped raise his pitch count. And after a 29-pitch bottom of the sixth that included Los Angeles’ first run of the night and brought his total for the game to 106, Scherzer got a handshake from his manager in the dugout.
“Just felt like I wasn’t quite in sync out of the windup tonight,” the two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner said. “I felt like I was falling behind in counts. Just wasn’t pitching quite as efficient as I’d like to, and that led to three walks. I always beat myself up with walks. But even with runners on base ... was able to execute some big pitches in some big situations to keep the goose eggs moving. And when you can do that and our offense keeps scrapping along and keeps tacking on runs, that just makes for a great team win.”
Though his bullpen was slightly refreshed after a day off, Martinez still wasn’t working with a full deck. Ryan Madson, who pitched all three games in New York, was unavailable, and so that required some piecing together of the seventh and eighth innings. The jobs ultimately went to Matt Grace and Solís (who combined to record three outs in the seventh but allowed one run) and then Brandon Kintzler (who tossed a 1-2-3 eighth).
And when the Nationals took advantage of Pedro Báez’s three walks (including one to Wilmer Difo with the bases loaded) they were able to hand the ball to Sean Doolittle for the ninth with a three-run lead. Doolittle easily retired the side, and the visitors jogged out of the dugout to dole out high-fives in front of a disappointed Dodger Stadium crowd.
“It was impressive we got on Kershaw early, which is what you want to do,” Solís said. “Because we didn’t think Max was giving up any kind of lead we got. We were glad to get a couple in the first inning. We didn’t really look back. And Max definitely didn’t look back.”