Last Sunday in Atlanta, Max Scherzer allowed the Braves only one run on two hits in six convincing innings of work. It was the only win for the Nationals in the four-game set against the Braves, serving as reassurance that when the Nats desperately need a win against a very good team, he would deliver. That will likely be the challenge the Nats face if they get to the National League wild card game Oct. 1.
But in the second matchup with Atlanta in five days, the Braves liked what they saw from Scherzer and rolled to a 5-0 victory. With the loss, the deficit in the National League East swells back to 9 1/2 games, and the Nats wild card advantage is 2 1/2 games over the Cubs and 3 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers.
Atlanta jumped ahead after three scoreless innings by getting ahead in counts, collecting three runs on seven hits against the Nats ace.
Scherzer struck out five through three innings. But in the fourth and fifth, the Braves generated five hits in seven at-bats, including two doubles that helped them score three times. It was enough on an evening when the Nats offense never got going.
“He was so-so,” said Nationals manager Davey Martinez. “(He) threw a lot of pitches, obviously, wasn’t as crisp, but he battled. We saw Max battle through it, just threw a lot of pitches. He really did. He gave us everything he had.”
Scherzer (10-6) was taxed to 99 pitches and was unable to fool the Braves this time around. By contrast, Scherzer fired 98 pitches in six innings of work last Sunday in the 9-4 win at Atlanta.
Matt Joyce drilled an RBI single followed by a run-scoring double from Dansby Swanson. The next inning, Nick Markakis, who already had two hits, connected for a long sacrifice fly to deep center field and suddenly it was 3-0 Atlanta.
“This is a good lineup and they did a good job of just grinding out ABs, fouling pitches off and I was working behind in the count at times,” Scherzer said. “(I was) just not able to locate quite as well and that’s something that’s got to change and make an improvement upon. Just being able to locate the fastball a little bit better and force their hand a little bit better in the locations I want to.”
But this wasn’t all on Scherzer as the Nats could only muster one hit against Mike Soroka. Victor Robles and Juan Soto hit doubles late against the Braves bullpen, but each time the Nats could not get them home.
This time Soroka (12-4) was back to his winning formula. Mixing his fastball with his changeup and slider, the Braves right-hander recorded three called third strikes and limited the Nats to one hit through six innings.
Last Sunday against the Nats, Soroka took the loss when he gave up three homers in the first three frames to Adam Eaton, Yan Gomes and Soto. Fast forward to Friday night and the Nats were unable to knock Soroka back early on. This time, Soroka had the upper hand from the outset.
“He wasn’t getting behind a lot,” Gomes said. “We weren’t able to work the counts as well. He kept the ball down, got some early outs. The count was working in his favor every time. He’s a really good pitcher and that’s kind of tough at-bats to have when your falling behind as a hitter. He kind of played his game.”
The Nationals bullpen did fairly well, but allowed two more runs to make it a difficult proposition for a comeback when the offense had not been able to generate any runs early in the game.
Tanner Rainey registered a scoreless sixth inning, but allowed a solo homer to Ozzie Albies to begin the seventh. Hunter Strickland then gave up an RBI double to pinch-hitter Rafael Ortega in the eighth inning. Javy Guerra recorded the final five outs for the Nats without giving up another run.
Tempers flared in the eighth inning when Howie Kendrick, who replaced Ryan Zimmerman at first base in the eighth inning, was called for not checking his swing on a pitch. Down 5-0, Kendrick grounded out on the next offering from Braves reliever Shane Greene for the second out in the inning.
Kendrick said something to first base umpire and crew chief Tim Timmons at first base. Timmons barked back at Kendrick. First base coach Tim Bogar quickly jumped in between the two and went after Timmons, not agreeing with the check-swing call. Bogar was ejected. Bench coach Chip Hale replaced Bogar at first base. Joe Dillon coached first base in the ninth inning.
“You usually don’t see that from Tim,” Martinez said. “He just got a little irritated. He didn’t think he swung, Tim (Timmons) said he did. More so, (Bogar’s) trying to keep Howie in the game, because Howie said something, so he defended him.”
Martinez said it is sometimes difficult for an umpire to make the swing call from back of first base.
“It’s a tough call, it really is. Just gotta watch the barrel,” Martinez said. “That’s the key. Your hands can go out front but the barrel don’t pass the line there and it’s not a swing. But it’s tough. You’re standing 100 feet and trying to make a call like that and I appreciate (home plate umpire Rob Drake) not calling that, that’s for sure, behind the plate, because that’s even tougher.”