MIAMI - If the intention of Nationals players this weekend is to convince the front office to keep believing in their chances and not sell before Tuesday’s trade deadline, they’ve done everything they can the last 48 hours to move the needle in their preferred direction.
It helps, of course, to be facing the Marlins. And to have Max Scherzer starting one of these games.
Not that the Nationals are about to apologize for their performance in the first two games of what could be a critical four-game weekend series at Marlins Park. On the heels of a blowout win Thursday night, they rode another big night at the plate and Scherzer’s brilliance on the mound to a 9-1 victory tonight.
Owners of a three-game winning streak for the first time since they last played the Marlins, the Nationals are back over the .500 mark. And after the Phillies and Braves both lost, they finished the night having picked up a game on each team ahead of them in the National League East. They’re now six behind Philadelphia, 3 1/2 behind Atlanta (which also holds the final NL wild card berth at the moment).
“Look, we get it,” Scherzer said. “We know where we’re at. We know the situation everything’s in. But at the same time, you can’t get bigger than the game. You can’t start thinking that this game is more important than any other game. You got to stay within yourself and go out there and compete how you know how to compete.”
Scherzer competed as well as he ever has against Miami tonight, and he’s had some dominant performances against this club before. For his latest trick, the ace struck out 11 over eight innings of three-hit ball that included one unearned run.
“Tonight it was just about as good as I think I’ve seen,” said Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who has seen Scherzer flirt with a no-hitter before. “He’s pitched good against us at times. But tonight, it didn’t look like he left anything in the middle of the plate.”
That helps explain how Scherzer reached the 200-strikeout plateau for the seventh consecutive season, matching previous streaks by Roger Clemens and Walter Johnson. Only Tom Seaver, with nine, has ever done it more times in a row.
“That’s an unbelievable accomplishment,” manager Davey Martinez said. “The fact that seven straight years to do that, that just speaks for what Max represents and how he goes about his business.”
“The fact that I’ve been able to keep making every start, going out there and just pitching with my stuff and keep making every start, that’s something I take pride in,” Scherzer said. “The fact that I can be counted on for 30-plus starts a year, I kind of take personally.”
It didn’t take long to recognize that Scherzer had “The Look” tonight. He cruised through the first inning on six pitches, retired the side in the second on 12 more and then struck out the side in the third on another dozen offerings. Nine up, nine down, four strikeouts, 30 pitches. Anyone who has watched him the last four seasons knew this was a game to continue watching, just in case something historic was brewing.
And if you needed any more evidence how locked-in Scherzer was, he also singled in the top of the third to extend his personal hitting streak to four games and scored from third on a wild pitch.
“It’s just awesome to watch,” Martinez said. “When he gets a hit, you watch him round that base and he’s jacked up.”
History wasn’t to be, though, not after Scherzer plunked Brian Anderson in the knee with an errant pitch in the fourth and then allowed a groundball single up the middle to Martín Prado in the fifth. No matter, because the right-hander wasn’t going to ease up, and his teammates had provided him a cushion to make life a bit easier.
The Nationals scored four quick runs off Marlins right-hander Pablo López: one apiece in the first and second innings, then two more in the third.
Matt Adams’ two-out single to center brought home Trea Turner for the night’s first run. Juan Soto made it 2-0 with a blast to right field in the top of the second, the teenager’s 13th in only 58 career big league games.
Add Scherzer’s run on a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly by Bryce Harper in the top of the third, and the Nats handed their ace a 4-0 lead that must have felt twice as large both for the right-hander on the mound and the opposing hitters at the plate.
Then they went and more than doubled the lead with a five-spot in the top of the eighth, getting five consecutive two-out hits with runners in scoring position to turn this game into another laugher and make their latest case to the front office to stick with them in 2018.
The Nationals may have their issues. But they’ve still got the best pitcher of his generation taking the mound every fifth day, looking as great on his 34th birthday as he ever has.
“Special. Special,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “There’s really no other way to describe it. I’ve said it before: I think one day I’ll look back on this time watching Max, and I think he’s so good that you almost take it for granted. I think one day 10 or 15 years from now, he’ll probably be enshrined in Cooperstown and I’ll tell my son that I got to play behind him.”