ATLANTA - All afternoon and into the evening they were searching for somebody, anybody, to deliver the hit that would break their moribund lineup out of its slumber.
Who knew the answer wasn’t any of the Nationals’ position players, but rather their ace?
Max Scherzer - yes, Max Scherzer - delivered the one-out single that got a 14th-inning rally jumpstarted, then raced all the way around the bases to score on Wilmer Difo’s triple to the gap in right-center, the run that ultimately propelled the Nationals a hard-fought, 5-3 victory over the Braves.
“Nothing amazes me with him,” Difo said of the three-time Cy Young Award winner who earlier in the day won his second straight National League Pitcher of the Month award and then raised his batting average to .310 with his biggest hit of the season.
With only backup catcher Pedro Severino still available off his bench, manager Davey Martinez instead turned to Scherzer to pinch-hit with one out in the 14th, his team having recorded all of one hit since the seventh.
“About the ninth inning, I told him: ‘Hey, you might want to put your cleats on; you’re probably going to get in this game,’” Martinez said. “If it gets going a little bit and gets into extra innings ... and he was in. It don’t take him much. He was excited. He’s still excited.”
Scherzer spent the previous innings getting loose, hitting balls off a tee in the batting tunnel and then taking some hacks off a batting practice pitcher.
“That’s what I do before a start, so I tried to keep it the same,” he said. “This is what you’re going to do: You’re going to hit off a tee, hit off a BP. So for me, just tried to keep it as game-like as when I’m pitching instead of a pinch hit.”
Whatever he did to prepare for the moment, it worked. Scherzer came through with a groundball up the middle off right-hander Miguel Socolovich, raced around first base and pumped his fists in celebration as the Nationals dugout roared with approval. After his far-more-accomplished teammates had gone 2-for-31 with 14 strikeouts over the previous nine innings, it was Scherzer who calmly recorded the single needed to get a rally started.
“I’m not going to be hitting the ball out of the ballpark, I know that,” he said. “I’ve got a high school swing, I know that. But you know what? It’s good enough to get a ball in play. Something happens.”
Indeed, something happened. And with Scherzer dancing off first base - for a moment, he looked like he might want to try to steal second - Difo stepped to the plate and drove a ball to the gap in right-center for his first hit in six at-bats.
“It inspired me, motivated me to have a quality at-bat there,” Difo said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “They held us in check for several innings with our offense, and after he got his base hit, the whole bench was excited. And it made me excited and motivated to have a good at-bat.”
As Difo raced around and slid into third base with a triple, Scherzer scampered across the plate in front of him with the go-ahead run.
“He goes first-to-home, and I’m holding my breath,” Martinez said. “But he was flying. I said: ‘You can run.’ He says: ‘I can do it all.’”
For good measure, Spencer Kieboom added an RBI single to left to bring home Difo with an insurance run and provide some cushion for a Nationals bullpen that was every bit as responsible for this win as Scherzer.
Sean Doolittle tossed a 1-2-3 bottom of the 14th to cap it off, the seventh perfect inning by six Nationals pitchers.
Martinez could have gone with Doolittle much earlier, against the heart of the Braves’ lineup in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth. But the manager stuck with conventional wisdom and saved his closer for later, instead trusting Sammy Solís to retire Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. Solís did just that, inducing groundballs from each slugger.
Shawn Kelley then struck out Tyler Flowers on a 3-2 changeup, and with that this game went into extra innings. A scoreless 10th by Brandon Kintzler kept the game going, and then three scoreless innings by Justin Miller provided critical for the Nats.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve ever thrown three innings professionally,” Miller said. “The third inning, I was just going out there trying to relax and give it as much as I can when I let the ball go.”
All of that came after another effective start by Gio Gonzalez, who cruised until a three-batter hiccup in the fifth that resulted in all three of Atlanta’s runs off him. The Nationals found themselves trailing 3-2 in the seventh and needing someone to deliver a big hit.
That someone was Juan Soto, the 19-year-old rookie who has accepted every challenge thrown his way so far without wavering, and who added another impressive moment to the growing list. Soto hammered an 0-2 splitter from left-hander Sam Freeman to right field for his second career homer, tying the game at 3-3 on his third hit of the afternoon.
The Nationals needed to plate another run somehow, though, to win this game. And they had to do so without cleanup hitter Matt Adams, who was lost in the fourth inning after fouling a ball off his right foot. Martinez said Adams was “real sore” but also said “he’s good” and will be re-evaluated Sunday.
The lineup suffered as a result, managing only one hit after the fourth inning: Soto’s game-tying homer. The kid had a chance to win it when he came up to bat with the bases loaded and two out in the 11th, but he was rung up by third base umpire Tom Hallion for a questionable check-swing call, quashing that possible rally and leaving pressure on the Nats bullpen to extend the game.
The Braves have been baseball’s most productive team against left-handers, entering the day with an .828 OPS, but Gonzalez had them baffled for four innings this afternoon. He retired each of the first 12 batters he faced, five via strikeout, and needed only 48 pitches to do it.
But then came a fast-and-furious stretch of three batters in the bottom of the fifth that flipped the script for Atlanta. Markakis broke up the unlikely perfect game bid with a leadoff single, then took third on Tyler Flowers’ follow-up hit. Then Gonzalez grooved a 2-0 changeup to Johan Camargo, who promptly drove the ball 430 feet to center field for a three-run homer that brought the crowd of 39,578 back to life.
It was the first three-run homer Gonzalez had surrendered since last September and only the second he has served up in the last two calendar years, but it was a critical one because it gave the Braves a 3-2 lead.
The Nationals had staked Gonzalez to a 2-0 lead, happy to finally make a dent into an Atlanta pitcher after 16 consecutive scoreless innings dating back to Thursday night. They did so thanks to the first of Soto’s three hits on the day, then a towering home run by Michael A. Taylor, who sent a 2-1 curveball into the left-center field bleachers.
But the Nats proceeded to go ice cold at the plate again after that, unable to push across another run against starter Brandon McCarthy until he departed following the sixth.
Who knew eight more innings of baseball still remained? Or that the man who would finally break through at the plate would be the man who also leads them on the mound every fifth day?
Then again, the Nationals - especially hitting coach Kevin Long - won’t be allowed to forget how this one turned out.
“K-Long’s not going to hear the end of this thing for a while,” Scherzer said. “He’s going to have to wait until the second half until I let that one go.”