TORONTO - The Nationals, as currently constructed, know they have to win on the broad shoulders of their pitching staff, especially ace Max Scherzer. They also know there isn’t a pitching performance in the history of baseball that could overcome a string of nine zeros by their lineup.
And so it didn’t matter that Scherzer today recorded the 74th double-digit strikeout game of his career, a mark only seven pitchers have ever topped. It didn’t matter that Scherzer retired the first eight batters he faced, or that he made only one mistake out of 108 pitches thrown in six innings.
No, what mattered was that the Nationals were shut out by Marco Estrada and the Blue Jays bullpen, leaving them to trudge out of Rogers Centre with another bang-your-head-on-the-table loss, this time by a count of 2-0.
It was the third time the Nationals have been shut out in their last five games, the seventh time they’ve been held to five or fewer hits in their last 13 games.
“It’s surprising, but it happens,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Sometimes you run into good pitchers. I know Estrada threw well his last outing, too, so it wasn’t no surprise. He’s not going to come in there and say: ‘Here you go, guys: Hit the ball.’ We battled, he battled and we just couldn’t get nothing going.”
Problem is, barring a sudden turn of events from a group of hitters that admittedly has been somewhat unlucky but more so has been underperforming for a while now, there’s little reason to expect things to get significantly better in the immediate future.
“I think good pitching beats good hitting any day of the week,” Bryce Harper said. “That’s baseball. Just have to keep grinding, keep going.”
Until they do, the Nationals simply will have to ask their pitchers to be perfect.
Scherzer has been nearly perfect each of his last two starts, but that hasn’t been quite good enough.
He was in peak form early on today, retiring the first eight batters he faced, striking out five of them and giving everyone in the ballpark at least reason to wonder if he might have something special in him today. He did not, but by the time the fourth inning ended, he still had allowed only two singles and a walk.
Then came the bottom of the fifth, and a quick sequence that would dramatically alter Scherzer’s outing and the game.
It began with an errant 1-2 changeup that struck Luke Maile, allowing him to take first base with one out. Two pitches later, Scherzer left an 0-1 slider over the plate to Devon Travis, the .217-hitting No. 9 batter who has become quite a pest so far this weekend. Travis, who homered and singled to start the game-winning rally Friday night, singled in his first at-bat today and launched that hanging slider from Scherzer in the bottom of the fifth deep to left field for another home run.
“The slider, I needed to get it down to the glove side, and I left it in the middle of the plate,” Scherzer said. “That pitch beat me. You just take that in stride, move on. Cause other than that, I felt like I had great stuff today. ... I just didn’t execute one pitch.”
It was a carbon-copy outcome from Scherzer’s last start, one in which he held the Giants to four hits over seven innings, striking out nine, only to have a 1-2 cutter to Brandon Crawford clear the fence and send the Nats to another 2-0 loss. This is the first time Scherzer has lost back-to-back starts since August 2015, not that he has particularly deserved either.
“This is Major League Baseball. One pitch can cost you a game,” the three-time Cy Young Award winner said. “Now I’ve had it happen back-to-back starts. Look, this is baseball. We’re a good team. They’re a good team. Estrada threw the ball great today. You can get beat like that. I’ve got to keep executing every single pitch I throw.”
It wouldn’t have to be like that, except for the fact that every run scored against the Nationals these days is a big deal because of how arduous a process it is for the Nats lineup to score a run.
Today was merely the latest example of a disturbing and ongoing trend, with Estrada reaping the benefits. The veteran right-hander, long ago a member of the Nationals’ inaugural 2005 draft class, allowed only two batters to reach base through the first five innings: Anthony Rendon, who drew a leadoff single in the second, and Michael A. Taylor, who put down a perfectly placed bunt for a single three batters later.
Otherwise, the Nationals barely threatened all afternoon. Trea Turner’s two-out double in the sixth brought Harper to the plate with a chance to make something happen, but Harper struck out looking to lower his season batting average to .222.
The Nats finally knocked Estrada out of the game in the seventh when Rendon (leadoff walk) and Taylor (two-out single) again teamed up. But reliever Danny Barnes quickly got Wilmer Difo to ground out and snuff out that rally on a day when the Nationals didn’t have many of them.
Harper came up to bat again in the eighth with two out and Turner on base ahead of him. And again he struck out looking, his batting average now sinking to .221.
“I feel great,” Harper insisted. “Just missing pitches.”
He’s not alone in this lineup right now.