Scherzer returns, rest of Nationals finish off blowout win

PITTSBURGH - Max Scherzer started for the first time in four weeks, the second time in seven weeks, and that’s the most important thing that happened from the Nationals’ perspective tonight at PNC Park.

“It was awesome,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Just seeing him run out there and take the ball was great.”

So was seeing Scherzer depart the game feeling physically well.

“Right now, I feel good,” the right-hander said. “Hopefully I wake up tomorrow, I feel good.”

And yet there still was a ballgame that needed to be won, a game against a floundering Pirates squad but a game that was too close for comfort for the vast majority of this rainy Thursday night along the banks of the Allegheny River.

Max-Scherzer-Fires-at-MIL-Gray-Sidebar.jpgSo while Scherzer’s undramatic return - he pitched four innings of one-run ball before getting pulled with his pitch count at 71 - from the injured list was significant, so were the five innings of scoreless work Martinez got from his beleaguered bullpen. And so were the five insurance runs the Nationals lineup finally tacked on in the eighth and ninth innings to provide that bullpen some much-appreciated cushion.

Put it all together, and the Nats left Pittsburgh with a 7-1 victory and three wins in four nights, good reason to feel good about a late-night flight to Chicago and super-quick turnaround to Friday afternoon’s series opener at Wrigley Field everyone was dreading all day.

“If you’ve got any recommendations, let me know, cause it’s gonna be tough,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I think we’ve faced a lot of adversity this year. This is just another test.”

Scherzer’s four innings in his return from a pair of upper back injuries were the early storyline, but his pre-planned early departure put pressure on the Nationals bullpen to finish what he started despite the extra workload required on this night.

Turns out that was no problem. Wander Suero pitched a scoreless fifth and Hunter Strickland pitched a scoreless sixth and seventh, all with the Nats clinging to a 2-1 lead. Then once the lineup added the insurance runs, Fernando Rodney pitched a perfect eighth and Javy Guerra finished out the ninth in what had now become a lopsided game.

“I think it’s huge,” Strickland said. “I definitely think we have the group down there to do that, and they’re ready for any opportunity that they do get. I think it’s definitely testament to these guys down there, and this team in general.”

The Nationals reached 13 games over .500 for the first time this season, a 25-game improvement from their 12-games-under low point on May 23.

Given the length of his 28-day IL stint, by far the longest of his career, Scherzer’s return tonight was understandably hyped up. The reality of the situation, though, revealed that the hype might have been overblown.

Yes, this was a major league start on Aug. 22, but it might as well have been a Grapefruit League outing on March 22. Scherzer threw only 64 pitches in his simulated game against teammates five days ago, and Martinez made it clear he’d be allowed to build up from that number, but only slightly, in his return to actual game action.

“You can simulate games all you want, but that’s not real,” Scherzer said. “Simulated games aren’t real. So to prepare for a lineup and face a team - those guys can hit - that was fun tonight.”

So it was that Scherzer was pulled after four innings - only the sixth time he failed to reach the fifth inning in 152 career starts for the Nationals - and 71 pitches.

“He was a little gassed, which we figured he would be,” Martinez said. “But his intensity was like always. He got through it. And hopefully tomorrow he wakes up, and he’s well recovered and we move forward.”

What did those 71 pitches reveal about Scherzer? Well, his velocity looked normal. His fastball averaged 94.5 mph and topped out at 96.3 mph. His command, however, was not up to its usual standards.

Scherzer struggled at times to put away hitters, leading to only three strikeouts. He gave up several hard-hit balls, most of them turning into outs, one of them turning into a run: Adam Frazier’s solo homer deep into the right field bleachers in the bottom of the third.

This wasn’t vintage Scherzer by any means, but it was a first step toward a return to vintage form. As always, it will matter more how he feels physically Friday than how he did tonight.

“For me, it’s going to be strengthening this up so I can pitch 100 pitches (next time), and when I need to, empty the tank,” he said. “So for me, it’s just a product of what I got to do in the weight room, of all the different exercises I have to do to strengthen the whole area up. You know, this is a good start, but I’m not out of the woods.”

The Nationals handed Scherzer a 2-0 lead before he ever took the mound. Doubles by Turner and Anthony Rendon, a bunt single by Adam Eaton, a dropped throw by Josh Bell and an RBI groundout by Howie Kendrick brought a pair of first-inning runs home and seemed to suggest the Nats lineup was in for another big night.

That did not prove true. Though they loaded the bases against Steven Brault in the top of the second, Rendon popped up to the catcher on the first pitch he saw. The Nationals didn’t seriously threaten again until the eighth, when they finally blew the game open.

Kendrick belted a two-run homer, then watched Victor Robles and Asdrúbal Cabrera add RBI singles during a four-run eighth. Rendon then crushed a solo homer to left in the top of the ninth, giving the All-Star third baseman (and free-agent-to-be) a career-high 28 homers and 101 RBIs.

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