Let’s not try to sugarcoat this: The Nationals had a bad weekend in Atlanta.
They lost three winnable games, fell at one point a full 10 games back in a division race that’s all but over now and saw their once comfortable cushion in the wild card race shrink. They lost Kurt Suzuki and Roenis Elías to injuries. They couldn’t do squat against the Braves rotation for three nights.
All of that makes for a bad weekend. That doesn’t mean it was a lost weekend.
Sunday’s events at SunTrust Park ensured that. And it wasn’t merely the Nationals’ 9-4 victory over the Braves, as necessary as that was.
It was Max Scherzer returning to real Max Scherzer form for the first time in two months. It was the Nats lineup finally taking down a Braves starter, in this case their ace. It was subsequent losses by the Cubs and Diamondbacks, allowing the Nationals to actually gain a game on both teams directly behind them in the wild card race. And it was the encouraging postgame news about Suzuki’s elbow, with an MRI revealing only inflammation and no structural damage, a huge sigh of relief.
Scherzer’s performance, of course, won the prize for “Most Significant Development of the Day.” The right-hander insisted after his last start, against the Mets, that he’d be able to reach back and give everything he had in this outing.
And he did. Scherzer’s fastball averaged 95.5 mph and topped out at 97.5 mph. He induced 17 swings and misses. He recorded nine strikeouts while allowing only two hits and two walks.
And he never looked like he was holding back. Not on the mound. And not even on the bases, given the fact he notched his second stolen base of the season. If that isn’t evidence Scherzer feels like his old self again, what is?
Yes, there’s still a bit of an issue with an elevated pitch count. Scherzer needed 98 pitches to complete six innings of one-run, two-hit ball, which is not a total you’d expect given how dominant he was. But let’s give just a little bit of credit here to the Braves, who work at-bats as well as any team in baseball.
Another encouraging sign: Scherzer was all set to retake the mound for the bottom of the seventh and exceed the 100-pitch mark for the first time since going on the injured list. When the Nationals expanded their lead from 4-1 to 8-1, Chip Hale (or possibly Davey Martinez from his office, post-ejection) decided there was no reason to push it anymore.
For that, Scherzer can thank the Nats lineup, which had been dreadful against opposing starters all week (six total runs in six games) but finally broke out again against one of the toughest starters they saw all week. Mike Soroka has been outstanding all season long, but the Nationals are one of the only teams to enjoy some semblance of success against the young righty.
In four head-to-head matchups, Soroka is now 0-2 with a 3.86 ERA, the Nats having hit five homers off him. Against everyone else, Soroka is 11-1 with a 2.48 ERA and only eight homers surrendered.
The Nationals hit four homers Sunday, and two of those came from an unexpected source: Yan Gomes. Gomes couldn’t have picked a better time to do it.
With Suzuki’s status unclear at the time, Gomes suddenly was being thrust into full-time catching duties, a less-than-ideal scenario given his offensive struggles all season (not to mention the fact Suzuki has become both Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg’s personal catcher).
Suzuki may be OK after all, but Gomes’ quiet resurgence over the last couple of weeks - he’s 12-for-36 with five doubles and three homers - is an important development for this team.
So, too, were Sunday’s losses by the Cubs and Diamondbacks. Especially the Diamondbacks, who have been red-hot and may now pose the biggest threat to the Nationals in a potential wild card game. Arizona won four of seven head-to-head matchups this season and torched Strasburg twice and Patrick Corbin once. That’s not an October matchup the Nats would salivate over.
Heading into the week, the Nationals now own a three-game lead over the Cubs for home-field advantage in the wild card game and a 4 1/2-game lead over the Diamondbacks for a spot in the winner-take-all game. The Brewers and Phillies are each five games back, with the Mets now seven back.
And, yes, the focus at this point needs to be on the wild card game. The Nationals trail the Braves by nine games with 20 to play.
Crazier things have happened, but not many.