Max Scherzer won’t win 20 games this season. He very well could strike out 300 batters. Whether that’s enough to get him a fourth Cy Young Award over first-time hopeful Jacob deGrom won’t be known until mid-November.
Scherzer was mostly dominant tonight against the Mets, striking out 13 batters in seven innings to raise his season total to 290. But back-to-back homers surrendered in the third left the Nationals ace ineligible to earn his 18th win, with at most only two starts remaining on his 2018 schedule.
Scherzer couldn’t complain too much after his teammates stormed back late to tie the game and send it into extra innings. But anyone who was still in the park when the Mets finally closed out a 5-4 win in the 12th had a right to be perturbed by the proceedings.
“We needed one quality at-bat. We couldn’t get that tonight,” said manager Davey Martinez, whose team fell to 4-10 in extra innings this season. “We had opportunities to win that game, a couple opportunities ... and we couldn’t do it. We needed that one hit, that one sac fly. Just move the ball. And we couldn’t do it tonight.”
Despite their eighth-inning rally to get Scherzer off the hook, the Nationals blew several chances to get the winning run home. And that left Jefry Rodriguez in position to take the loss in the top of the 12th via Amed Rosario’s leadoff single, a sacrifice bunt, an intentional walk, an unintentional walk and a sacrifice fly by old pal Jose Lobaton.
The Nats then went down in order in the bottom of the 12th, with Bryce Harper ejected for the first time this season after a borderline strike three call by D.J. Reyburn. Harper, who said a few words to Reyburn at the plate, turned around and was walking back toward the dugout when he got the heave-ho, leaving both the star outfielder and his manager livid.
“He was walking away,” Martinez said. “I mean, I don’t know what he said; I haven’t talked to him. But he was walking away. It should be a done deal.”
Harper, who only last week mentioned he was trying hard to get through his first major league season without an ejection, had already departed the clubhouse by the time reporters entered after the game.
Only a few minutes earlier, the Braves beat the Phillies in Atlanta. That means the Nationals’ loss leaves them with an elimination number of two, their chance of winning the division potentially vanquished as soon as Friday night.
Down 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals rallied to tie the game with some dramatic at-bats against the Mets bullpen. After Victor Robles led off with a single and Trea Turner drew his second walk of the night, Harper stepped to the plate with a chance to give his team its first lead of the game. Harper nearly did it, fouling off six straight pitches from lefty Daniel Zamora before launching a ball deep to right that brought the crowd to its feet. Alas, the ball died at the warning track, leaving 28,358 souls sighing in frustration.
No worries, because Anthony Rendon (who earlier homered) got one run home with a grounder to third and Juan Soto followed with a laser of an RBI double off the right field wall to get the tying run home and bring the crowd back to life.
The Nationals couldn’t get the go-ahead run home in the eighth, but Sean Doolittle quickly retired the side in the top of the ninth to give his teammates another crack at it in the bottom of the inning. They again could not convert, so for the fifth time in 16 games, these guys went to extra innings. By the time it was over, this had become the Nats’ fourth 4-hour game this month.
“That feels pretty bad, because I don’t want to just tie the game. I want to win the game,” Soto said. “I feel bad. The last couple innings, we fight.”
Way back when this one started, Scherzer entered with 17 wins and three starts remaining in his 2018 campaign, which left him no margin for error if he wanted to reach the 20-win plateau for the third time in his career. He had a bit more leeway in search of 300 strikeouts for the first time, entering the night 23 shy of that milestone.
By the time he departed, 300 strikeouts was still in play for Scherzer. Twenty wins was not, all because of back-to-back blasts in the top of the third.
“I mean, you’re aware of it, but that’s not why you go out there and pitch,” Scherzer said. “You go out there and pitch to win. I wanted to come in today and win a ballgame, and unfortunately we lost. You’re always thinking about all those things you weren’t able to do to help your team win. For me, those are milestones, and I don’t pitch for those. I pitch to win.”
Scherzer seemed to be in good shape in the third. Despite allowing a leadoff single to Jason Vargas, he struck out Amed Rosario and Jeff McNeil, leaving him one good pitch away from ending the inning. But then Michael Conforto reached out and tagged a fastball on the outside corner the other way, sending the ball flying into the left field bullpen for a two-run homer.
Only seconds later, Jay Bruce did it himself, driving a 1-2 fastball into the red seats just beyond the wall in left-center for back-to-back homers and leaving Scherzer in a 3-0 hole. These were the 22nd and 23rd homers surrendered by the Nationals ace this season, the fifth time he has allowed more than one in a start.
“Frustrating, because I thought I was sharp,” he said. “But I was also a little mechanically off, just a touch. My fastball was running away from me. Every time I tried to go glove side with it, early part of the game, it was just traveling to the other side of the plate. I got away with it a couple times, but I think there in the third they made me pay for it when I didn’t locate the way I can.”
The two homers were the only real blemishes on Scherzer’s pitching line. He otherwise blew away the Mets lineup, striking out 10-of-16 batters during one stretch. His eighth of the evening gave him 285 on the season, breaking his own club record from 2016. He finished with 13 strikeouts over seven innings, giving him 290 for the season with at least one and possibly two starts to go in search of the magic 300 figure.
If only the Nationals could have supplied Scherzer with some run support against an opposing pitcher who has been extremely hittable for everyone in the league other than the Nationals.
Vargas has made 17 starts against the rest of baseball this season, during which time he has posted a gaudy 7.00 ERA. But the journeyman left-hander shut out the Nats over six innings last month in Flushing, and he nearly did it again tonight.
The Nationals had no answer for Vargas’ assortment of slow, slower and even slower, flailing away to the tune of eight strikeouts in five innings and making weak contact on the rare occasions they got the bat on the ball. They finally broke through in the sixth when Turner beat out a grounder to the hole at short and Rendon launched his 100th career home run to left.
Rendon’s blast, however, only trimmed the deficit to 3-2. The Nationals needed to score two more runs by the seventh to put Scherzer in position to get the win. They did not do it. At least, not until Scherzer was no longer the pitcher of record.