Max Scherzer didn’t need to go nine innings to subdue the Marlins on Friday night. He didn’t need to strike out a dozen opposing batters. Thanks to the offense behind him, the Nationals ace had the latitude to pitch effectively and put zeros on the scoreboard.
Never mind that the 96 pitches the right-hander threw on a hot, humid night with the heat index approaching 100 degrees at first pitch were his fewest in 26 starts this season. Scherzer still carved up the Fish during six scoreless innings, allowing five hits, walking one and fanning seven.
“Just had a plan, (Matt) Wieters and I, and we just executed it,” Scherzer said. “I was able to throw off-speed when I needed to, locate a fastball when I needed to and was just able to keep throwing up zeros. They grinded me to put some runners on base there and there was some spots in a game that could have swung the game either way, and Wieters did a great job behind the plate, finding the right pitch to throw at the right time.”
Coupled with a 14-hit attack, that was sufficient to throttle the Marlins 8-2, a perfect start to a run of 12 straight games against National League East foes that looms large if the Nationals are to reinsert themselves into a pennant race. A game over .500 at 62-61 and with a two-game winning streak, the Nats are taking baby steps because that’s the only thing they can do at this point in the season.
“As a team, we swung it well,” said Harper. “Had good at-bats. When Max is out there, you want to get ahead as quick as possible because when he’s throwing the ball well, we got a chance to win. We were able to get some runs early, and Max threw well.”
But Scherzer did more than just mow down Marlins. He scored a pair of runs, reaching base on a fielder’s choice in the third and doubling over the head of left fielder Austin Dean in the third. For some teams, the sight of an ace pitcher barreling around the bases, even sliding into home to beat a throw from the outfield, would be cause for concern. But not for the Nationals.
“I’m happy about it,” said Harper. “He’s working hard. He comes in here wanting to get on base and swing the bat and run the bases. He does it all for us. Every fifth day, he goes out there and pitches the ball well and runs the pillows really well and scores.”
Added Wieters: “It’s huge. Anytime you can make a lineup deeper, it’s huge. I think the biggest thing with Max is in big pressure situations when you need a ball put in play, he has the ability to put the ball in play where you don’t have that strikeout sitting in the nine-hole, which makes it tough as a catcher to call a game knowing we’ve got to get the seven-hole out, we got to get the eight-hole out, that way we can go right at the nine-hole without having to worry about the single up the middle that’s going to drive in two runs.”
For his part, Scherzer continues to prove that he’s more than a one-trick pony. He leads NL pitchers with 16 hits this season, a new career high, and upped his batting average to an impressive .296 with a 1-for-2 effort.
“When I’m at the plate, I just want to compete, I just want to make it a competitive at-bat,” Scherzer said. “If it’s bunting or trying to find a way to move a runner, or just hit, it’s going up there and making a competitive at-bat and trying to make it as hard as possible on the pitcher. Look, I know I’m not a great hitter, but I can just go out there to do what I can do at the plate to just help out any way I can to help the team.”
Scherzer is also a bulldog on the mound, which set up a potentially difficult conversation with manager Davey Martinez when he came off the mound after working six innings.
“I told him that was good, our bullpen can cover,” Martinez said.
And Scherzer didn’t argue.
“I kind of knew where my finish line was at, and just the ... if I wanted to go back out there and face Castro and Dean, two righties, that was my finish line,” Scherzer said. “I didn’t really have the bullets tonight to go past that. They said they’d rather go with a reliever and give them a fresh inning and work from it that way. They made the decision easy, and that’s what I had tonight.”
Wieters sensed Scherzer’s tank was close to empty.
“I think he knew, with the intensity he had in his last outing, how hot it was out there tonight, he knew he had to use all of his focus and he did that, right from pitch one, he slowed himself down when he needed to just so he could make sure he was able to keep putting up zeros and give us a chance to score some runs for him,” Wieters said.
Scherzer departed with a 5-0 lead, and reliever Trevor Gott couldn’t get out of the seventh, surrendering two runs on Dean’s first career hit, a homer to left, and an RBI single by pinch-hitter Miguel Rojas. Matt Grace came in to stop the bleeding, striking out Rafael Ortega for the final out.
Given new life, the Marlins couldn’t extend the momentum. Adam Eaton beat out an infield single, igniting a three-run rally that put the Nats up by five and meant the bullpen needed to get only six more outs. Harper drove in a run with a single, another scored on a throwing error after Anthony Rendon singled and Juan Soto plated a run.
“Any time you get insurance runs, it gives the bullpen more room to breathe, that they can be more aggressive at the Marlins and throw the pitches that they want and if they get a hit or two, you don’t really worry about it,” Scherzer said. “You just continue to pitch your game. Our offense did a great job tonight.”
Zimmerman, who homered to start the scoring in the second, is batting .341 (14-for-41) with four homers and 15 RBIs in August. Daniel Murphy singled in the seventh to extend his hitting streak to 10 games, his 16th streak of 10 or more games with hits during his career.
“We were able to grind out some at-bats, grind out some innings,” Wieters said. “Some two-out runs, which was huge. We didn’t put a big inning on them, but was able to scratch off runs and with Max out there on the mound we knew that if he we just kept adding on, little by little, we were going to have a chance.”