CHICAGO - Max Scherzer has blamed his struggles on mechanics. He's blamed them on execution of pitches. And now he's blaming them on his inability to outthink the talented Cubs hitters that dug in against him this afternoon and blasted his pitches out of Wrigley Field.
"I felt like I was predictable, and they were just able to kind of key on that," Scherzer said following an 8-6 loss that featured four Chicago homers in his five innings of work. "It's almost like they had a better understanding of me, than me."
Perhaps the Cubs really did their homework well and knew what to expect from Scherzer each time he threw the ball in a key situation. But that can't account for every pitch they crushed off him.
And they crushed plenty. During a stretch of 19 at-bats from the second through the fifth innings, the Cubs recorded all seven of their hits off Scherzer. One was a single. One was a double. One was a triple. Four cleared the fences, all by a healthy margin.
Those four homers all came on poorly located pitches: a first-pitch fastball up and over the plate to Tommy La Stella; an 0-1 fastball down and in (but still in the strike zone) to Anthony Rizzo; a 1-1 changeup near the middle of the plate to Ben Zobrist and; another first-pitch fastball right down Broadway to Zobrist, who launched his third homer in 24 hours to put this game out of reach.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm perfectly executing pitches and they're blasting them," Scherzer said. "Obviously, I'm catching a little too much plate. But at the same time, maybe I was a little too predictable in what I was doing. That's something for me to just chew on for the next four days and try to come back out here and compete and do what I do."
Had this been a one-time occurrence, it might be easily glossed over and forgotten. But this was merely the latest example of Scherzer becoming eminently hittable. The problem began during the second half of the 2015 season, and it has now continued into the first month-plus of 2016.
There have been, to be sure, several dominant starts sprinkled in between the duds. Scherzer threw a 17-strikeout no-hitter in his final start of 2015, and only five days ago he shut out the Cardinals over seven innings.
But in the bigger picture, Scherzer has been getting hit hard for a while now. And those hard-hit balls all seem to be leaving the park.
After matching his career-high with four homers allowed today, Scherzer has now served up nine total in seven starts this season (most in the majors). He has allowed 28 total homers in his last 23 starts, an average of 1.7 per nine innings pitched (well beyond his career mark of 1.0).
"I'm very surprised, because he's a good pitcher about location, and for the most part he's been locating well," catcher Wilson Ramos said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "It just seems like a lot of these pitches, he's leaving over the plate. That's what has really hurt him a lot: He's left a lot more pitches over the plate than I'm used to seeing."
One of today's homers might not actually have been one. Rizzo's third-inning moonshot down the right field line appeared to strike one of the flags commemorating retired players' numbers that flies at the top of each foul pole here, with the flag blowing toward foul territory at that moment.
First base umpire Clint Fagan immediately ruled it a home run, but Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and other members of the Nationals argued it should have been a foul ball. Replay officials in New York, though, found no conclusive evidence to overturn the call, so Rizzo's home run stood, setting up the opportunity for Zobrist to follow him in the next at-bat.
"I saw it hit the flag, but heck, you can't tell which way the flag is blowing," said Dusty Baker, who managed the Cubs from 2003-06. "I don't know, the flag was a blowing a little bit on (the foul) side. It looked like it. But then I looked back up and the flag was still. And I looked back up another time and it was blowing the other way. That's the first time I've ever seen a ball hit the flag. That's when you're going good, when you're hitting flags."
"If it hits a flag, what's the ruling?" Scherzer asked. "I'm just curious to hear what the ruling is, and whether they saw anything but just didn't have enough evidence to overturn it. It's just one of those things that went their way."
Very little seems to be going Scherzer's way right now. As the season moves well into its second month, he finds himself sporting a 4.60 ERA, more than two runs higher than anybody else in the Nationals rotation. No one in the majors has allowed more homers.
And no one is more frustrated than Scherzer, who wishes he had a better explanation for all this.
"I don't have an answer for you, especially regarding what happened today," he said. "Sometimes you've got to let the sun come up before you can finally figure out what's actually going on. You've got to chew on it the whole night."
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