PHOENIX - Max Scherzer doesn't like to evaluate his starts by what happens in the first inning, the second inning or just about any inning he takes the mound. For Scherzer, it's not about how he starts. It's about how he finishes.
"I always say you can usually define your outing by the last 15 pitches that you throw," the right-hander said. "That's usually when the outing is decided, when you're going to either win or lose a ballgame. And today was a case of that."
The final score - an 8-3 Nationals victory over the Diamondbacks - doesn't really reflect the significance of Scherzer's final inning of work: the bottom of the eighth. At the time, the Nats led by only a run. Scherzer's pitch count stood at 94. Manager Dusty Baker easily could have sent up a pinch-hitter for him in the top of the inning and then entrusted the rest of the game to his bullpen.
Scherzer, though, has earned the trust of his skipper to stay in that game, to give him one more inning, the inning that separates the aces from the No. 2 starters. And performances like today's reveal why.
Trying to protect that slim, one-run lead, Scherzer proceeded to retire the side in the bottom of the eighth on nine pitches, finishing his day with a flourish and putting his team in position to win the game and sweep the series.
"Going out there for the eighth, you need a zero," he said. "No room for error. To be able to execute there in the eighth really puts a smile on my face. Because you're able to come out of the game knowing you accomplished your job of pitching deep into a ballgame and giving what the team needed."
At the time, it looked like Scherzer would be handing the ball over to newly acquired closer Mark Melancon for his first save opportunity since last weekend's trade with the Pirates. The Nationals' four-run rally in the top of the ninth denied Melancon of that scenario and left him merely to pitch a low-pressure inning with his team comfortably ahead.
But that didn't detract from Scherzer's performance on a day in which the right-hander just about did it all.
It wasn't simply the 11 strikeouts over eight innings to earn his 12th win. It also was the two-out, two-run single he delivered with the bases loaded in the top of the sixth, two runs that looked huge at the time.
"He works on it," Baker said of Scherzer's offensive game, which has produced five RBIs this season. "I mean, he works on it all the time, and all our pitchers work on it. You want them to feel like they're part of the offense, especially in a situation like that."
Scherzer's 95-mph single up the middle came on an 0-2 pitch from Zack Godley. It also came an inning after he failed to get a bunt down.
"I really take pride in being able to move runners and help the team, and I wasn't able to do it in that at-bat," he said. "But I found a way to grind out an 0-2 at-bat and get a ball up the middle that scored two runs that really helped open the game up. Anytime you can do something at the plate to help your team, it really puts a smile on everybody's face."
Scherzer is putting smiles on a lot of faces these days. He's now 4-1 with a 1.46 ERA in his last seven starts, striking out 60 batters while walking only 10.
"He's got great stuff, he's smart, he puts a lot of work into it," said rookie Trea Turner, who has been around for most of this run. "He's a competitor. He goes out there every pitch and compete, and he gets mad at himself when he makes a bad pitch, as he should. I like playing behind people like that, people who care and people who want to win."