MIAMI - If the Nationals’ primary objective over these final two weeks before the All-Star break is to take care of business against the sub-.400 competition they’re facing, they put on a clinic tonight that should be bottled up and saved for future teams to watch and admire.
It helps, of course, to have peak Max Scherzer on the mound.
Scherzer continued his month of dominance with yet another gem, carving up the Marlins for eight innings and leading the Nationals to a simple, efficient, needed 6-1 victory in the opener of a potentially promising 12-game stretch to close out the first half.
“Good way to start the road trip,” manager Davey Martinez said.
Scherzer was brilliant, picking up right where he left off Wednesday night during his 117-pitch masterpiece against the Phillies with a black eye and broken nose. He didn’t need to work nearly as hard this time, cruising through his eight innings on a scant 94 pitches before handing things over to new teammate Fernando Rodney to pitch the ninth.
The 42-year-old reliever, offering Nationals fans their first glimpse at the full “Fernando Rodney Experience,” got ahead of the first batter he faced 0-2 before throwing four straight balls to put him on first base. But he bounced right back to strike out Starlin Castro with a 96 mph fastball and then got Neil Walker to ground into a game-ending double play, capped by Rodney’s trademark “bow-and-arrow” routine.
“He knows how to pitch,” said Martinez, who had Rodney with both the Rays and Cubs. “I’ve seen him come in and walk the first guy and settle down and get three quick outs. It’s nice. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s going to get an opportunity to pitch here, and I hope he continues to do well.”
Scherzer is the one who’s really pitching well these days. Over his last seven starts, the three-time Cy Young Award winner is 5-0 with an 0.92 ERA, 0.816 WHIP, 69 strikeouts and only eight walks in 49 innings.
“We expect it out of him,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I expect it out of him, just because he goes out there every fifth day and gives you 100 pitches, everything he’s got in the tank, and competes. I think sometimes we (take it for granted).”
The ace’s teammates supplied with early offensive support tonight, riding a three-run rally in the third and then Turner’s three-run homer in the fourth to a comfortable victory on a night when that’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
After surviving an intense homestand against the Phillies and Braves with four wins in six games, the Nationals now close out the first half with 12 games against the Marlins, Tigers and Royals. Those three teams entered the night owning three of the majors’ four worst records.
The task at hand, then, is obvious. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Miami had been on a quiet roll of late, winning 20 of its last 35 games behind a rotation that sports a 3.71 ERA (third-best in baseball).
“You’ve got to come down here, and you might not have fans in the stands, there’s no atmosphere here, but you’ve got to mentally bring it every single time,” Scherzer said of Marlins Park, which featured a crowd tonight of 7,327. “They know how to play in this atmosphere, and that’s what they’re really good at: grinding you away. It’s happened to me coming down here. I was fully aware of that, wanted to come down here and put together my A game.”
The Nationals lineup helped out with six runs off Trevor Richards. They got three of them in the top of the third, loading the bases with one out and then getting a two-run single to center from Juan Soto and an RBI groundout from Howie Kendrick to take the lead.
That rally was started by Scherzer, who ripped a leadoff single to left. And the pitcher was instrumental in the Nats’ next three-run rally the following inning when he put down a nice bunt (his first since last week’s batting cage mishap) and wound up safe at first when neither Walker nor Castro covered the base. (Though Castro was hindered by a mini-collision with umpire Bruce Dreckman.)
All of that set the stage for Turner, the South Florida native who demolished Richards’ pitch to left, clearing the Clevelander Bar for a titanic, three-run homer that made it 6-0.
“That’s why it’s so tough to ask him to bunt,” Martinez said. “Because with a guy on first and second like that, he can hit a ball out of the ballpark. And I know that. I saw him do that last year. When he’s going well, or even when he’s not, you want him to swing the bat. And tonight he hit a three-run homer and gave us a big lead.”
That was more than enough support for Scherzer, who cruised throughout. He struck out the side in the second. He allowed a run in the fourth, but only on the basis of an infield single, two groundouts and an RBI single. He retired the side in the sixth on six pitches.
And though his pitch count was still relatively low at the end of the eighth, he didn’t put up a fight when Martinez offered him a handshake in the dugout, ending his evening and continuing his run of excellence.
“We wanted to keep him under 100 pitches today,” Martinez said. “If he would’ve had 94 pitches in the seventh, he probably would’ve been done as well.”