Scherzer, bullpen team up for tight win over Mets (updated)

They can’t all be laughers. The Nationals couldn’t go into Citi Field tonight and expect to blow out the Mets again. No, they were going to need to win a tight ballgame if they wanted to remain perfect on the road.

And it doesn’t get any tighter than 2-1.

Thanks to a gutsy start from Max Scherzer in his return from a nagging hamstring ailment, a couple of quick runs off Rick Porcello and lights-out work from the back end of their remade bullpen, the Nationals eked out a tense, low-scoring victory over the Mets and indeed extended their remarkable run on the road.

The Nats have now won 12 consecutive games as the designated road team, a streak that dates back to Game 2 of the 2019 National League Division Series and also includes two “road” games against the Blue Jays in D.C. two weeks ago.

Monday night’s series opener in New York, a 16-4 rout, was a piece of cake. Tonight’s contest bore no resemblance to it, but in some ways the club’s first one-run win of 2020 was more enjoyable.

“Getting a win like that,” shortstop Trea Turner said in a postgame Zoom call with reporters, “especially when you’re not slugging the ball all over the field, I think is very nice.”

Scherzer set the tone with an impressive pitching performance on a night when the ace had to work for every one of the 18 outs he recorded. Turner, Howie Kendrick, Kurt Suzuki and Victor Robles teamed up to produce two early runs and stake their starter to a lead.

But the most important participants in the game, once again, were the guys who came out of the bullpen to close it out.

Javy Guerra recorded one out in the seventh, but departed with two runners on base. In came Tanner Rainey, asked not only to pitch out of that jam but then return to at least open the eighth.

The second-year right-hander has become Davey Martinez’s go-to guy in the highest-leverage spots, and he continues to earn the right to get those assignments. First, he got Jeff McNeil to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to end the seventh (leaving the Nationals bullpen a staggering 21-for-22 stranding inherited runners on base this season).

“That’s kind of what we expect out of ourselves,” Rainey said. “We look at ourselves as a great group of guys down there in the ‘pen. Anybody can get big outs here and there whenever it’s needed. We expect to be able to cover some innings and keep the games where they are.”

Rainey was far from done after the escape act in the seventh. He came back to retire the side in the eighth with two strikeouts and a grounder, giving him five outs on a scant 13 pitches.

Daniel Hudson then closed it out in the ninth, with some help from Turner’s defensive gem on a popup behind third base, to earn his third save and complete an all-around quality win.

Scherzer-Delivers-Gray-at-NYM-Sidebar.jpg“I don’t want to say we expect it, cause it’s hard to have success in this league,” Scherzer said of Hudson. “But it doesn’t surprise us when he does, because of the stuff that he has.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Martinez said there were no limitations on Scherzer: “He’s going to pitch as much as he can pitch.” But six days after he was pulled 27 pitches in due to a tweaked right hamstring, it was fair to wonder just how long the leash would be.

The bottom of the first figured to be especially telling. What did the Nationals learn about their ace in that opening frame? He looked as good as ever, with a fastball that averaged 96 mph and topped out at 98 mph. And he was getting full extension and finish on his pitches, a stark contrast from his last outing.

But he also had to work excessively hard just to get through that first inning, finally getting former batterymate Wilson Ramos looking at a 97 mph fastball at the end of a long at-bat with the bases loaded at the end of a long inning that required 29 pitches.

Then the bottom of the second was just as laborious. Though he faced only five batters, Scherzer needed another 31 pitches to record three outs. That’s 60 pitches in two scoreless innings, a combination that doesn’t typically go together except when the opposing lineup somehow manages to foul off a whopping 17 pitches and keep at-bats alive.

“I give them credit,” he said of the Mets lineup. “They had great ABs early in the game. They were able to grind me and have just a ton of foul balls.”

At that point, the odds of Scherzer making it deep into the Flushing night seemed remote. But this is Scherzer, and don’t you dare try to tell him the odds of something happening are remote.

“I felt like the innings were taking a while, so I looked up and I saw 60 pitches,” Turner said. “Wow, they’re having really good at-bats. I knew they were battling him in general, but 60 pitches is a lot, especially the first two innings. But it’s Max. He can go out there and have three 10-pitch innings and be right where he would be on a normal day.”

Sure enough, the veteran right-hander started getting quicker outs and gutted his way into the sixth inning having allowed only one run (via Andrés Giménez’s one-out triple in the fourth made possible in part by Adam Eaton’s bad angle in right field, then Luis Guillorme’s sacrifice fly).

And as he so often does, Scherzer finished with a flourish, retiring the side in the sixth and stalking off the mound with a pitch count of 105.

“You know, it honestly kind of reminded me of Game 7 of the World Series,” Martinez said. “The way he went out there and couldn’t zone in on the strike zone. His stuff was good. His pitch count got high. But once he settled in, we noticed he started getting through the ball a little better. Balls were starting to come down, he started to throw a lot more strikes. And his breaking balls were really good toward the end. ...

“It’s Max being Max. He’s going to fight through it. That’s who he is. He wants to give you everything he has every single day.”

Scherzer departed in line for the win, but the Nationals didn’t give their bullpen any margin for error. Despite opening the night strong, they were silent at the plate most of the evening.

Turner got things going with an opposite-field homer on Porcello’s second pitch of the game, a notable hit in multiple ways. It was only the second home run Turner has ever hit to straightaway right field in his big league career. And it was the 10th leadoff homer of his career, breaking the club record Alfonso Soriano set way back in 2006, his lone season in D.C.

A second-inning rally included singles by Kendrick, Suzuki and Robles to make it 2-0, though any chance of extended it was quashed when Robles was thrown out trying to stretch his blooper down the left field line into a double.

That’s all the Nats would do at the plate against Porcello, who followed up last week’s dominant start at Nationals Park with another effective performance.

And so the pressure was on the ever-changing bullpen to record nine outs and close out a well-earned, one-run victory.

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