No history for Scherzer, but domination is more than enough

It is mostly ludicrous to conjure up images of no-hitters or record-breaking strikeout performances after exactly one half-inning of baseball, but when Max Scherzer takes the mound, the conventional line of thinking doesn't apply.

"If he's done it once, he can do it again," manager Dusty Baker said. "You allow yourself to think it. You don't talk about it, but you think it."

"I'd like to say he surprises me," catcher Wilson Ramos, via interpreter Octavio Martinez, said. "But he doesn't."

"When he's throwing like that," shortstop Danny Espinosa added, "it's going to be a tough night."

In the end, there wasn't anything historic about Scherzer's outing tonight. He merely tossed seven innings of two-hit, 11-strikeout ball, leading the Nationals to an impressive 4-1 victory over the Cubs in the opener of this highly anticipated series between two best teams to date in 2016.

It took a collective effort for the Nationals to beat the Cubs for the first time in five tries this season, from Ramos' homer to Espinosa and Ben Revere's RBI singles to Shawn Kelley's surprise five-out save in place of a "sore" Jonathan Papelbon.

max-scherzer-pitching-20-strikeouts-sidebar.pngBut make no mistake, this was Scherzer's game first and foremost. And the difference between a ho-hum dominant pitching performance and something historic was razor-thin.

"I always say if you get through six innings, you've got a shot," he said. "Unfortunately, I hung a slider, and that didn't happen."

That hanging slider came to Addison Russell with one out in the sixth, and the Cubs shortstop promptly hammered it down the left field line for a solo homer. But that was the lone blemish on Scherzer's pitching line in his latest remarkable outing.

Scherzer has now made 47 starts for the Nationals the last two seasons. In seven of those starts - a full 15 percent of them - he has carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning.

And this time, he was combining his record-setting strikeout pace with his run at perfection. Scherzer struck out nine of the first 10 batters he faced, the lone Cub to put the ball in play Ben Zobrist, who tapped a weak grounder to second base in the top of the second.

Suffice it to say, this was a far more effective performance by Scherzer than his last attempt against this team: a four-homer barrage last month at Wrigley Field.

"They've got a great team over there," he said. "And they've got a great lineup. And I remember that they beat my brains in last time. I wanted to come out there and take my shot at them."

Scherzer did that, carving up Chicago's vaunted lineup before departing for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh, his pitch count only at 96 but his stamina admittedly waning.

With his team up 4-1 thanks to a three-run sixth against right-hander Kyle Hendricks, Baker needed to get six outs from his bullpen. No big deal, except there was a catch this time: Papelbon wasn't available for reasons that weren't entirely specified.

"We really don't know yet," Baker said. "Paps was feeling pretty sore, and he was ailing, so we didn't really have Pap tonight. We'll make a further evaluation tomorrow."

Asked if it was Papelbon's arm that was sore, Baker replied: "No, not in his arm. He was just sore."

So the Nationals piecemealed the back end of their bullpen to close this one out. Left-hander Oliver Perez struck out Javier Baez to begin the top of the eighth. Kelley struck out both Cody Ross and Russell to complete the inning, then was given a rare opportunity to re-take the mound for the ninth.

Wasting no time at all, the veteran right-hander retired the side, striking out a pair and making a nimble play covering first on a grounder to the right side of the infield. Five outs, four via strikeout, and Kelley had himself the fifth save of his career, his first this season.

It was a dominant pitching performance that would have been worthy of headlines. If not for the performance of the guy who started the game for his team. The guy who just makes a regular habit out of these kind of performances.

"I'm thinking if I go in this game, I'm just going to look like a lesser version of Max," Kelley said. "I've got to be really good. He set the tone. He got them on the defense. He was aggressive and attacking. Then Oliver came in and got his hitter. I was just trying to stay on the attack."

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