Scherzer's injury exit further taxes 'pen in 1-0 loss (updated)

Max Scherzer knew what the Nationals needed him to do Friday night, and the right-hander was game. In true ace fashion, he took the ball, expected to give a team desperately in need of some length a deep start and get the delayed opener to a four-game series against the Giants off to a good start.

Everything was fine - until it wasn't. And that didn't take very long.

Scherzer-Fires-Blue-Sidebar.jpgScherzer lasted only 12 pitches, getting just one out and throwing six strikes, before an undisclosed injury forced him from the game, an eventual 1-0 loss in which the Nats mustered just two hits and only one runner reached second base. It was a gut punch to the Nats on a night when full capacity was allowed at Nationals Park for the first time this season, with an announced crowd of 18,029 in attendance. Many fans were still settling into their seats when the injury stoppage occurred.

Scherzer exited after throwing a high-and-outside ball on a 2-2 four-seamer to Brandon Belt. The right-hander hopped awkwardly on the mound, squatted trying to flex the groin muscle and then called for assistance from the dugout.

Manager Davey Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard joined Scherzer and catcher Yan Gomes on the mound, and after a brief chat, Scherzer tried to throw a warmup pitch. He looked frustrated as he handed the ball to Martinez and exited the field with Lessard, heading down the tunnel to the Nationals clubhouse.

"The minute I saw it, I thought, 'Oh, boy.' " manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. "Went out there, tried to throw a pitch. Right away, I saw his face and I told him, 'You're done. We gotta get you checked out.' "

Scherzer knew right away that something was wrong. It was just a case of whether he could still pitch or whether he needed to have the problem checked out immediately.

"I threw a pitch to Brandon Belt, and all of a sudden, I felt my groin tweak on me," Scherzer said. "When I had that happen, it's foreign for me to have that type of injury on that location on my body. I knew I needed to take a warmup pitch. I coudn't look myself straight if I didn't throw another warmup pitch, so ... obviously, once I made that warmup pitch, it grabbed again in the same spot. It just wasn't an injury you could pitch through."

The good news came after the game, after Scherzer had left the park to undergo an MRI and returned to see a thriller that didn't break the Nats' way. The diagnostic tests showed no strain, just imflammation, and he's officially listed as day-to-day.

"It's really best-case scenario in terms of what the injury is in that I'm really day-to-day," he said. "This could subside pretty quickly here. ... Fortunately, it's not worse than what it is."

"It was a lot better news than I thought," Martinez said. "I thought it was a muscle pull in his groin. It turned out not to be that. But we're still not out of the woods. We'll see how he feels tomorrow."

There were no signals during his pregame preparation that the groin would be an issue, Scherzer added.

"I don't know why. It happened, whatever, move on," he said. "I'm not going to play second-guessing. I warmed up a hundred percent, routine, ball was flying out."

Scherzer seems to have dodged a bullet, but the Nationals had to burn through their bullpen again, and with a split doubleheader scheduled tomorrow, Martinez will work late into the night determining who he's going to add as a 27th player, who will pitch the nightcap after Erick Fedde is activated off the COVID-19 injured list to start the opener and whether a roster move will be necessary to bolster the bullpen.

"We still got a lot to figure out," the manager said.

Scherzer had gone to a 3-2 count on leadoff hitter LaMonte Wade Jr. before coaxing a fly ball to left fielder Kyle Schwarber. Right-hander Paolo Espino replaced Scherzer and got Belt to sky to left field, yielded a single to Buster Posey and got Brandon Crawford to pop out to shortstop Trea Turner for the inning's final out.

With the doubleheader looming tomorrow as a result of Thursday's rainout, the Nationals were hoping for some length out of Scherzer to rest a taxed relief corps.

Instead, they asked Espino to eat some innings under less than ideal circumstances.

Espino held the Giants in check through the third, but gave up a solo homer to Posey off an 0-1 slider with one out in the fourth as the Giants took the lead. Two batters later, after striking out Steven Duggar looking, Espino was pulled in favor of Kyle McGowin after 3 1/3 innings of stellar emergency relief. He allowed three hits and a run, striking out five.

"It was a mistake (on) location," Espino said of Posey's blast. "It spun, it didn't really break."

While the Nats were piecing together a bullpen game, Anthony DeSclafani was rolling through their lineup. The right-hander faced the minimum through six innings, erasing Turner's leadoff single to right-center in the fourth and Schwarber's leadoff walk in the fifth with double play grounders.

The Nationals nearly knotted the game on one swing by Juan Soto in the seventh. Soto rocked a 3-2 changeup deep to left-center, but left fielder Mike Tauchman leaped at the wall and brought the would-be homer back into the park at the bullpen fence. Josh Bell followed with a double over the wall in right, but Schwarber grounded out to end the threat.

DeSclafani allowed just two hits, walked one and fanned eight in his third career shutout.

Espino, McGowin, Wander Suero, Ryne Harper and Sam Clay combined for 8 2/3 innings of four-hit relief. But the bullpen's performance was overshadowed by Scherzer's ominous exit. The Nats are now 5-6 in games where they allow four or fewer hits, a clear signal of their offensive problems.

"Man, I can't say enough of what they did," Martinez said. "They were outstanding, they really were. What a job they did. ... They held it together."

"They were put in a tough spot right there and they answered the call," Scherzer said. "That'll cost me a nice bullpen dinner. That's going to be a nice pretty penny somewhere on the road. I got to pay for that. They're going to get me good."

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