With 13-strikeout gem, Herz carries Nats to victory (updated)

The first time he struck out Tim Anderson, it was merely a nice way to start the afternoon. The second time he did it, it was the continuation of an already impressive outing. The third time he did it, DJ Herz hopped off the mound, slapped his hand to his glove and floated all the way back to the Nationals dugout, where teammates and coaches alike couldn’t wait to greet the rookie left-hander with high-fives and hugs.

The third start of Herz’s major league career had just come to an end, and it included a standing ovation from the crowd of 25,637 at Nationals Park who just watched this previously unknown 23-year-old put together one of the most dominant and most efficient starts in club history.

With six innings of one-hit, zero-walk, 13-strikeout ball on 84 pitches in a 4-0 victory over the Marlins, Herz etched his name alongside some of the best pitching performances the Nats have ever witnessed.

"I think this outing, I wanted to control my body language a little more, be a little better with that," Herz said. "And the first five innings, it was perfect. And then I got the last strikeout, and I kind of had a little feeling that I was done and just let my emotions fly a little bit. It was awesome."

He’s only the fourth person to wear the curly W cap and strikeout out 13 or more batters without issuing a walk. Max Scherzer did it four times during his Hall-of-Fame career. Stephen Strasburg did it twice, including in his historic major league debut. And John Patterson did it during the inaugural 2005 season at RFK Stadium.

From that group, only Strasburg had achieved that combo in fewer than eight innings. Herz did it in six. And, it has to be noted again, in only his third career start.

"Awesome," manager Davey Martinez said. "I was very pleased with the 18 outs he gave us. He had 84 pitches. We could've sent him back out there. But I thought he did a great job."

Strasburg and Herz, by the way, are the only pitchers in modern history with a 13-strikeout, zero-walk performance in one of their first three starts. Herz joins Clayton Kershaw and Greg Maddux as the only major leaguers to strike out 13 or more batters on fewer than 85 pitches since pitch counts were first officially tracked in 1988.

"I caught him the last time he had 10 (in his final Triple-A start before his promotion)," catcher Drew Millas said. "And it felt very similar. He didn't really miss much. And when he did, he just got swings-and-misses."

The young left-hander, acquired from the Cubs last July for third baseman Jeimer Candelario and called up to the big leagues two weeks ago to replace the injured Trevor Williams, had the Marlins completely baffled all afternoon. Miami’s hitters were overanxious at times, swinging at a number of pitches out of the zone. But Herz kept enough close enough to keep himself from giving away any free passes, no small feat for a guy who averaged nearly six walks per nine innings in the minors.

"Honestly, I'm more happy about the no walks than the K's," he said. "If I don't walk guys, I'm going to strike guys out. That's just how it's always been."

Herz cruised from the moment he took the mound, striking out Anderson to start the game, then Bryan De La Cruz after that. He struck out two more in the second, then struck out the side in the third. And when he got Anderson again to open the fourth, he had himself seven strikeouts out of 10 batters faced, nobody having reached base to that point.

"I told (pitching strategist Sean) Doolittle yesterday: 'I got the the changeup. I'm getting it in the zone tomorrow. That's going to be the key,'" Herz said. "And we got the changeup in the zone, and that allows me to get more chase, throw it out of the zone and get swings. I haven't been able to do that the first two outings."

He remained perfect into the fifth, when Jake Burger lined a clean single past a diving Trey Lipscomb at third base. And how did Herz respond: With two more strikeouts after that.

Then, with the crowd’s roar growing with each successive batter, Herz struck out the side one last time in the sixth, getting Anderson for the third time to finish his afternoon with authority.

"He does actually hop off the mound sometimes after his strikeouts," Millas said. "That's pretty normal. But he's got some fire to him, he definitely does."

Martinez indeed opted not to push the rookie, who hadn’t completed five innings in his two previous starts, any further. With his “A” bullpen fresh, he handed the rest of the game to Dylan Floro, Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan. That trio took care of business, with Harvey getting himself out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, to lock up the Nationals’ sixth straight win over Miami and lock up Herz’s first major league win.

"He got overemotional in the sixth inning, after that third out. And when I see a pitcher doing that, that to me means he's probably done," Martinez said. "But he did really well. He got ahead of hitters today, which was great. It was important. And it's part of his development: Learning how to throw strikes, consistent strikes."

The Nats lineup supported Herz with some quick run support, jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first, though it came at a cost. Jesse Winker, whose single to left advanced Lane Thomas into scoring position to score on Joey Meneses’ sacrifice fly, got caught rounding second too far on Ildemaro Vargas’ single to center. Winker was thrown out trying to get back to the bag and in the process injured his right knee, forcing him from the game.

Martinez said Winker, whose .378 on-base percentage leads the club, will be getting an MRI on his knee tonight.

Thomas got the first-inning rally going with a double to the gap in left-center. He took care of business on his own in the third inning, driving a fastball from Trevor Rogers to right-center for his second homer in as many days, his sixth of the season and a 2-0 lead. Joey Meneses added a two-run homer off Andrew Nardi in the eighth.

"I'm sure it's nice pitching with a lead," Thomas said. "I don't know what it's like, but I hope we keep doing that. It's nice to score in the first inning."

Not that Herz needed anything extra after that. Not on this, the greatest afternoon of his young life.

"It still doesn't feel real," he said. "I'm just super-blessed. I think that was probably my best game I've ever pitched. And to do it at this level, it's a great feeling."

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