Scherzer beats Nats in eventful return to D.C.

This was always going to be an emotional night, no matter what transpired once the first pitch of the game was thrown. Max Scherzer’s first start for the Mets, at Nationals Park of all places, promised to be must-see TV.

Who knew Scherzer’s return would serve as only the appetizer to a wild night of baseball on the season’s second day, one that began with a 14-minute delay for a power outage, concluded with a 38-minute delay for rain, and featured two ejections and a benches-clearing incident in the middle of it all?

Officially, this was a 7-3 Nationals loss in a game that ended at 11:39 p.m. following the second delay of the evening. The result almost felt secondary to everything else that preceded it.

“Just a crazy, wild experience,” Scherzer said.

Scherzer was solid, though hardly spectacular, in his New York debut. Josh Bell clubbed a second-deck homer off the three-time Cy Young Award winner, one of three runs the Nats scored in six innings against their former ace.

Josiah Gray, one of the prospects the Nationals acquired from the Dodgers for Scherzer and Trea Turner last summer, was strong early but faded late, charged with four runs and eight hits in four-plus innings.

And then there was the scene that played out in the top of the fifth, when Nats reliever Steve Cishek was ejected after drilling Mets star Francisco Lindor near the face with a fastball, an incident that resulted in both benches and bullpens emptying and new Nationals third base coach (and former Mets third base coach) Gary DiSarcina also getting ejected.

The first two nights of the 2022 season haven’t produced any wins for the Nats, but they sure have produced no shortage of storylines.

This was the highest-profile return of a former National to D.C. since Bryce Harper was booed mercilessly in April 2019, but the crowd reaction this time was strikingly different. There was nothing but applause from the stands when Scherzer’s name was announced as tonight’s starting pitcher. And when he took the mound for the bottom of the first – all of this after a 14-minute delay when the ballpark lights went out – many in attendance gave him a standing ovation.

After that, it was all business. The crowd cheered not for Scherzer, but for what Nationals hitters did to Scherzer.

That included a nice sequence in the bottom of the second when Bell was hit by a curveball in the foot, took third on Keibert Ruiz’s line drive single to center and scored on Yadiel Hernandez’s sacrifice fly to the base of the wall in left-center for a 1-0 lead.

And it most certainly included the sequence that opened the bottom of the fourth, when Nelson Cruz ripped a 112.7 mph single to right-center and Bell followed with a 112.2 mph moonshot into the second deck. As Bell circled the bases following his first homer of the season, the crowd roared with approval, caring not one bit about the identity of the three-time Cy Young Award winner who gave it up.

“I could get through the baseball tonight, but I also knew I needed to recognize I do have an injury,” said Scherzer, whose status for this start had been in some doubt due to a tweaked hamstring.

The cheers weren’t reserved for offensive heroics, either. For the second straight night, the Nationals sparkled in the field. Bell made a nifty play to track down a roller just inside the first base line, slide to retrieve the ball and then throw Mark Canha out trying to stretch the hit into a double. And Dee Strange-Gordon, starting in center field over Victor Robles, unleashed a perfect throw to the plate to nail Robinson Canó trying to score on Tomás Nido’s two-out double in the fourth.

“I do like the way we’re playing defense,” Nats manager Davey Martinez said. “We’re playing with a lot of energy.”

But as was the case Thursday night, the genuinely positive developments for the home team weren’t enough to overcome the negatives, most of those emanating from the pitching staff.

Gray, making his highest-profile big league start to date, looked really sharp early. He retired the first six batters he faced, four via strikeout, all via breaking balls. But he watched as Jeff McNeil turned on an inside fastball in the bottom of the third for a solo homer, and that was kind of the beginning of the end.

The young right-hander hit a wall in the fourth inning, one that included two walks, a double, two singles, two runs and the potential for more if not for Strange-Gordon’s brilliant throw to the plate for the final out. Then he was given the opportunity to retake the mound for the top of the fifth, facing the New York lineup for the third time, and it did not end well.

“Spring training is one thing, but then the regular season is another,” Gray said, admitting some fatigue despite only throwing 80 pitches. “Just getting used to the up-downs, just the whole element of regular season games is something that you have to go through first to continue to adapt to it.”

As Sean Doolittle began warming in the bullpen, Gray surrendered a leadoff triple to Brandon Nimmo. Then as Cishek also began warming in the bullpen, Gray surrendered an RBI double to Starling Marte, this one giving the Mets a 4-3 lead.

Martinez couldn’t wait any longer to make the move; he pulled Gray at that point, for the second straight night receiving only 12 outs from his starter.

Cishek was now entrusted with facing Lindor and keeping the deficit at one run. He would get the opportunity to throw only two pitches before his night came to an abrupt end. The side-arming reliever came in high and tight to Lindor, who was squaring around to bunt, and the pitch struck the Mets star on the face.

As Lindor lay on the ground in pain – X-rays on his jaw would later come back negative, and he passed a concussion test – the Mets began barking from their dugout, third base coach Joey Cora marching from his position toward plate umpire Chris Guccione to argue. And the next thing you knew, the entire New York dugout had spilled onto the field, followed by the Washington dugout, followed by both teams’ bullpens.

It didn’t appear any punches were thrown, but it took several minutes for order to be restored. Then after another several minutes of conference among the entire umpiring crew, Cishek was ejected, much to the reliever’s shock.

“When it hit him, it shocked me, because I’ve never hit a lefty in the face or the head before,” Cishek said. “I kind of put my head down. And my first intention was to go over there and see if he’s OK. And when I did that, I realized it was a bad idea, because it kind of fired up the bench a little bit on the other side.”

Crew chief Mark Carlson said the ejection was not for the pitch Cishek threw, but for his subsequent actions to “escalate the situation.”

“By coming in towards the melee, basically,” Carlson said. “Instead of getting away and not being a part of it, he continued forward towards the bench-clearing.”

The Mets’ frustration was understandable; Lindor was their fourth batter hit by a pitch in two days, the second on a fastball near the head. But equally understandable was Cishek’s frustration; he had no good reason to intentionally throw at Lindor in that situation.

“First of all, I’m thankful he’s OK,” Cishek said. “Totally unintentional. Look, I went to deliver a pitch and saw him square around. We were going up and in. We want to attack him there with that pitch. This one just got away from me, and unfortunately it hit him.”

DiSarcina also was ejected for his actions after the benches cleared.

“The job of a coach, or the staff, is to help deescalate a situation, not escalate it,” Carlson said. “And we felt that in that situation, he was one of the aggressors and not helping deescalate it.”

Regardless, the Nationals were now down one of their best relievers. Doolittle did his part to get out of the fifth without allowing any more runs to score. But Víctor Arano couldn’t do his part the following inning, allowing two tack-on runs to increase the deficit to 6-3.

And what played out from there felt quite familiar.

Scherzer finished his start with a flourish, retiring eight of the last nine batters he faced. The Mets bullpen then took care of business, posting zeros in the seventh and eighth innings to preserve the lead while the Nats bullpen labored to keep the game within reach.

And when the rain arrived in the top of the ninth and the game officially went into its second delay, it made for an unceremonious conclusion to another long and frustrating night of baseball.

“I am seeing some good things,” Martinez said. “We definitely gotta clean some things up. But like I said, it’s a long journey. We have to stay positive, and that’s something I will do and keep doing. We have another game tomorrow.”

 

 

 

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