Defense does in Scherzer in latest agonizing loss (updated)

If this wasn’t the epitome of the Nationals’ 2020 season, it’s tough to imagine a sequence that could define this agonizing campaign any better.

Max Scherzer on the mound, his pitch count well into triple digits. The Marlins threatening to take a late lead. Manager Davey Martinez trusting his ace to get out of the jam over anyone out of his bullpen. And then a defensive miscue costing Scherzer and his team the game.

Despite thinking for a split-second he had escaped a bases-loaded jam with a grounder to third on his 119th pitch of the afternoon, Scherzer watched in horror as Eric Thames couldn’t handle Carter Kieboom’s low throw across the diamond, bringing home the second unearned run the Nationals allowed in an agonizing 2-1 seven-inning loss to open today’s doubleheader in Miami.

Scherzer-Firing-Blue-Sidebar.jpg“You think you’re out of the inning,” Scherzer said during a Zoom session with reporters. “And then you’re not. That’s just baseball. That happens.”

It happens, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Scherzer had gutted his way deep into another start, racking up his pitch count but keeping his team in the game. Last weekend, the three-time Cy Young Award winner collapsed in his final inning, serving up two game-changing homers to the Braves. Today, he did his job. But he still was tagged with the loss because his teammates couldn’t do theirs.

With the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the sixth of this shortened game, Scherzer battled pinch-hitter Starling Marte through a seven-pitch at-bat, dialing up his fastball to 96 mph. And when he saw Marte chop his 119th pitch of the game to third, he started walking toward the dugout thinking he had escaped unharmed.

But Kieboom, who took a step back to field the ball and needed a split-second more to set his feet before throwing across the diamond, fired low to first. The throw didn’t touch dirt, but it was right at the ground. And Thames couldn’t hold onto it as Marte crossed the bag and the go-ahead run crossed the plate.

Scherzer’s frustration could be seen from 1,000 miles away, his gutsy effort spoiled by matters out of his control.

How many times does Thames expect himself to catch that throw?

“Every single time,” he said. “Yep, just missed it.”

The Nationals did mount one last-ditch rally in the top of the seventh, getting a leadoff single from Luis García and an opposite-field double off the left field wall by Yadiel Hernández, the 32-year-old rookie’s first career hit. But Andrew Stevenson, Trea Turner and pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki couldn’t push the tying run home, Suzuki striking out with the bases loaded to end the contest and send the Nats to the heretofore unheard of record of 19-32, with nine games left to play this week to conclude a season that has become more and more difficult for everyone to stomach.

“It’s very frustrating living life as it is now,” Thames said, kicking off a lengthy - perhaps cathartic - diatribe on the unprecedented nature of the 2020 season. “It’s not just on-the-field stuff, but off the field. You can’t do anything. You’re stuck in your room. You’re eating the same meals every day. Using you microwave more than ever. It’s just very, very frustrating. The natural energy’s not there. Yeah, your teammates pick you up. Your teammates are playing for each other. But the games, it’s a whole different vibe now. ...

“It’s definitely a grind. It’s a grind. That’s all I’m going to say. Holy cow. Oh, man.”

And it’s not quite over yet. With eight games to be played during this grueling five-day stretch, the Nationals need to get as much as they can out of each of their starting pitchers. And nobody is held to a higher standard in that regard than Scherzer, who took the mound today with the realistic goal of throwing a seven-inning complete game.

One inning in, though, Scherzer was already behind the eight ball, needing to throw 29 pitches during a long opening frame. The right-hander gave up only two singles, but the Marlins took advantage of a wild pitch that got lost behind the backstop padding and a sloppy throwing error on García, who came charging in from his shifted position at second base to field Matt Joyce’s two-out grounder, then flipped the ball wide to first to bring a run home.

It wasn’t necessarily a routine play, but it was an error nonetheless, the Nationals’ 33rd of the season. That ranks in the lower third of the majors, but it only tells part of the story of the team’s fielding woes in 2020. The Nats entered the day with a minus-47 Defensive Runs Saved rating, far and away worst in the majors, according to Sports Info Solutions. And that’s before they allowed two unearned runs to cross the plate.

Scherzer’s defense let him down, but he again put himself in a tough spot with a string of long at-bats that contributed to another elevated pitch count. So even though he allowed only the one run on four singles and zero walks through four innings, his pitch count already stood at 85 thanks in large part to a whopping 24 foul balls of Marlins bats.

The Nationals caused no such early stress on Sandy Alcantara, who cruised through his first four innings on 53 pitches. Then, finally, some pressure in the fifth, producing their first run of the game.

With two on and two out, Stevenson worked the count full and drew a walk, the sixth time the outfielder reached base in nine plate appearances since joining the active roster Friday. That loaded the bases for Turner, and the star shortstop responded by chopping a ball to third and beating it out without a throw to drive in the tying run.

With a chance to take the lead, though, the Nationals couldn’t capitalize. Juan Soto followed Turner’s infield single with a flyout to center to end the fifth. Then after getting a leadoff double from Asdrúbal Cabrera in the sixth, Thames, Brock Holt and Yan Gomes couldn’t advance the runner beyond second base.

So Scherzer took the mound for the bottom of the sixth in a tie game, his pitch count approaching triple digits and the outcome hanging in the balance.

That situation has often led to disaster this season. And it did again today. This time, though, it wasn’t the ace’s fault.

“This is the big leagues. Sometimes you get beat and that’s frustrating,” he said. “As a whole, there’s things I’ve done well and things I haven’t. The things I look at tonight, I feel like I located the baseball pretty well today. I think that’s the reason why I was executing pitches today. That’s what you do. You just take it one outing at a time and move on.”

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