Max Scherzer pitched quite well yesterday. Who wouldn't be satisfied with one run and four hits allowed over six innings?
But when your teammates are shut out, as the Nationals were by Brewers rookie Junior Guerra and two relievers, that one run allowed by Scherzer looks much more significant. And the manner in which it scored - via Martin Maldonado's solo homer in the top of the fifth - loomed large, given Scherzer's season-long struggles keeping the ball in the park.
"There was a solo blast. That was the difference," Scherzer said. "It was a 1-0 game. Most of the times, solo bombs, they don't beat you. That's usually a mentality that works and keeps you on the attack. It's the only time in my life you lose on a solo bomb, but it happened today."
Indeed, Scherzer's only real mistake in the game was his 2-1 fastball to Maldonado in the fifth, a 94 mph pitch over the plate that wound up clearing the visitors' bullpen in left field.
It wouldn't have been a problem, except for the fact it was the only run scored in the entire game by either team, and it was yet another home run surrendered by Scherzer. He has now given up 21 homers in 18 starts this season, tops in the NL.
Go back a full calendar year, meanwhile, and you see this problem has been persisting for a while. Since July 5, 2015, Scherzer has made 35 starts. He owns a 14-12 record and 3.51 ERA, allowing a staggering 41 home runs in that time. The good news: He has 292 strikeouts and only 52 walks in 230 2/3 innings.
Scherzer and the Nationals have come to accept the home runs. What troubled the right-hander more yesterday was his high pitch count, which reached 114 after only six innings, forcing his departure.
"I threw the ball well today. I had good stuff," he said. "Obviously, you would like to pitch seven innings, but when you go six innings and give up one run, you're giving your team a chance to win. So you don't beat yourself up. You just try to find different ways to be more efficient in different situations, so it does give you the opportunity to go out there for the seventh."
Scherzer put only seven men on base in his six innings. The bigger reason for the elevated pitch count was the Brewers' ability to foul off their share of pitches, prolonging at-bats. Milwaukee batters fouled off 23 pitches overall, making their opponent work harder to record his outs.
"There's not a whole bunch you can do about that," manager Dusty Baker said. "You've got to give the other guys credit for fouling it off. That's the thing, and those are called tough at-bats. You might not get a hit, but you end up driving up the pitcher's pitch count on that. There's not a whole bunch you can do about it, when they're tipping a ball and fouling it off. All you can do is just try to make pitches."
This wasn't a one-time occurrence. Scherzer has needed at least 113 pitches to complete six innings three times in his last four starts. His challenge now: figuring out what he can do to lower that pitch count.
"It's a little bit of everything," he said. "I just haven't been quite as efficient over the last couple outings, and I'm kind of scratching my head over that. It's been a lot of long, drawn-out at-bats where guys are fouling pitches off and just lengthening the at-bat. And that's something that over the next few days I'll just have talks with everybody and just come up with a different gameplan to try to combat that."