Then he finished in another world.
Scherzer ended up firing eight strong innings, grunting all the way and punching out a season-high 15 batters in a start where he threw a season-high 120 pitches as the Nationals won the series by beating the Reds 4-1.
Scherzer put on a vintage performance, allowing only one walk on three hits with one hit batter, striking out at least one in each inning he pitched and winning for the first time since May 11 against the Dodgers at Los Angeles. He struck out the side twice and had at least two strikeouts in four of his innings.
The critical moment of the start arrived in the eighth with a man on second and two outs, with the dangerous Joey Votto waiting for another shot at Scherzer. The Nats were holding on to a 4-1 lead.
Earlier, Votto had delivered a rally-starting double in the fourth, but Scherzer had counter punched by striking him out in the sixth.
Manager Davey Martinez walked out to the mound and had to feel like he had to speak to Drogon, the fire-breathing dragon from "Game of Thrones." Scherzer, in no uncertain terms, let Martinez know he wanted to stay in the game and get Votto again.
"I got to hear it from him," Martinez said of the visit. "He's got a lot of pitches and I just want to hear it from him. We kind of exchanged some non-professional words, but it was good to hear he wanted (the) battle."
What words were exchanged?
"I'd rather not say, but I love it," Martinez said.
"I knew I was strong," Scherzer said. "I knew with the schedule I had an off-day the previous time. I'm coming up on another off-day. My arm felt great, even in the eighth. I knew I had plenty in the tank to keep pitching. I just wanted the ball in that situation. I know myself and I know I want the ball."
Scherzer (3-5) struck out Votto with an almost unreachable fastball, his second called third strike against the veteran in as many at-bats.
"He's a really good hitter. He can really hit every pitch you throw," Scherzer said. "You really got to change your sequences and really execute pitches against him. He really controls the zone well. You just got to execute. I was able to get the curveball over for 0-0 and was able to get a borderline call on the 0-1 heater in and then just execute a fastball down and away to get a big strikeout in that situation."
Catcher Kurt Suzuki said the two strikeouts of Votto went a long way in securing the win for Scherzer.
"The one earlier was frozen with a fastball outside," Suzuki said. "The last one kind of emptying the tank right there. It's his hitter and he wanted him, obviously. He just went 1-2-3. Spotted a good fastball down and away and we got out of it."
What was amazing about the momentum of Scherzer's start was how he kept getting stronger as he went through the Reds order again and again. He had eight of his 15 strikeouts after the fourth inning.
Suzuki said the team was feeding off of Scherzer's energy. Scherzer's grunts as he delivered two-strike pitches could be heard inside the press box.
"Oh, I love it," Suzuki said of Scherzer's passion and focus. "I always tell everybody: Whenever Max pitches, I try to get here extra early so I can get my mind mentally right, get ready for Max. That's the kind of guy you want to be behind. I love that.
"I try to match his intensity out there. I fire him up. He'll fire me up. When he's out there you see the intensity that he has, the competitiveness that he has fires me up. I want to go and we have fun with it."
In the fourth, Votto dropped in a bloop double to left field just out of reach of a diving Anthony Rendon. Derek Dietrich followed with an RBI double down the right field line to score Votto. Scherzer struck out Jose Iglesias to end the opportunity.
The ace made it all the way to the eighth inning, well past 100 pitches.
"There was no denying he was going back out in the eighth, that's for sure," Martinez said. "He was very adamant about it and just by watching him he really didn't have many stressful innings. He pretty much dominated today. For me when you are that No. 1 guy, that's what you are going to get."
The double-digit strikeouts mark the 86th time Scherzer's accomplished that in his career. It was the 22nd time that Scherzer had registered 10 or more strikeouts and allowed one earned run or less. He is 3-0 in his career at Great American Ball Park, having struck out 35 batters in 20 innings, allowing only one run on 11 hits.
"I just felt really good on the mound," Scherzer said. "Really cleaned up my mechanics. Got my posture kind of ironed out. Kind of had that last against the Marlins where I was really pounding the zone. Really focused on my changeup, made a little tweak on my changeup. I was able to get that dialed in to where I could execute it down in the zone or below the zone, and was able to use that pitch."
The Nationals got going in the first inning against Reds starter Sonny Gray, thanks to a leadoff double by Trea Turner and a run-scoring single from Rendon.
In the fourth inning, Rendon singled but was replaced at first base on a fielder's choice by Juan Soto. Suzuki provided an RBI double to score Soto and the Nats led 2-0.
Gray lasted five innings on 88 pitches, surrendering two runs on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts.
Brian Dozier's eighth-inning two-run single off Reds closer Rasiel Iglesias provided important tack-on runs and the Nats led 4-1.
Rendon went 3-for-4 with a walk, a run scored and an RBI single. Suzuki also had two hits, including an RBI double.
Sean Doolittle pitched a scoreless ninth, which included a strikeout of Dietrich, for his 12th save on the season.
The Nats have won seven of their last nine games, are 2-0 in June, and improved to 26-33.
"It's huge," Martinez said. "We were playing a team that was doing really well, swinging the bats really well. Now we get to go back home, have a day off, regroup and go back and face the White Sox."