Max Scherzer expended a lot to get through five innings today against the toughest lineup he’s faced in 2020. Though the Nationals ace had some of the best pure stuff he’s had all season, the Braves wore him down (like they’ve done to so many opposing pitchers) and left him with a pitch count of 104 as he walked off the mound at the end of the fifth.
And once his team scored two runs in the bottom of the inning to take the lead, Davey Martinez could’ve made the decision to pull Scherzer and turn to his bullpen. But with a depleted bullpen, the third-year manager instead opted to send his starter back to the mound for the sixth. And then leave him out there until his pitch count reached a whopping 119 and the lead vanished.
Maybe it’s not worthwhile to nitpick managerial decisions during the final two weeks of a pandemic-shortened season that has long since gone awry, but Martinez’s managing of what appeared to be an exhausted ace this afternoon can’t be brushed aside.
It was confusing in the moment, and it remained confusing by the time the Braves closed out an 8-4 victory over a Nationals club that briefly showed life this afternoon before it all came crashing down.
“We were watching him. I know he had a lot of pitches, but he felt good,” Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “With the extra day (of rest prior to this start) we had, we were trying to get him through that sixth inning. At that time, we only had three (trusted) guys in our bullpen.”
As good as he looked through five innings, Scherzer did have to use up a lot to get there. He threw 31 pitches during the fifth, which included a couple of long at-bats against the heart of the Braves order and a drive to the warning track to end the frame. And though he retired Dansby Swanson to open the sixth, he only did so after an eight-pitch at-bat and a sensational catch by Juan Soto as he crashed into the left field wall.
“I had an extra day (of rest) coming into this start, I’ve got two extra days coming up,” Scherzer said. “The bullpen’s been taxed. I threw five innings. I’m thinking there I need to get through the sixth inning. We’ve got three of four right-handed hitters coming up. That’s an opportunity for me to go out there and try to get through that inning. There’s no reason why I should come out of the game after the fifth inning.”
Maybe Scherzer still gave the Nationals their best opportunity at that point, but the results only kept getting worse as it all played out. Nick Markakis singled to right on his 114th pitch. Adam Duvall homered on his 116th pitch to tie the game. As Wander Suero warmed up in the bullpen, Scherzer stayed on the mound and gave up a single to Austin Riley on his 118th pitch.
And then on his 119th pitch - the most he’s thrown since June 2, 2019 - Scherzer gave up a no-doubt homer to Ozzie Albies on a 93-mph fastball. Moments earlier, the Nationals led 4-2. They now trailed 6-4 as Martinez finally walked to the mound to pull his starter.
“At the end, I lost my location,” Scherzer said. “And paid for it.”
It would be one thing if this was an abnormal blip for Scherzer, but sadly it’s been the norm this season. He has now faced 21 hitters after surpassing the 100-pitch mark. Those hitters are now 9-for-18 with three homers and a 1.682 OPS.
“It’s been different,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “Usually that’s kind of where he thrives. It’s just one of those years where you don’t know any rhyme or reason. The stuff’s there. You just don’t know any rhyme or reason for it.”
Everything that happened after Scherzer was pulled today was academic. Suero, Kyle Finnegan and Ryne Harper combined to retire the first eight batters they faced in relief before giving up two tack-on runs in the ninth. The Nationals lineup couldn’t mount a late rally against a Braves bullpen that has successfully preserved all 21 leads it has held after the sixth inning this season.
And the Nats dropped their third tight ballgame in four tries this weekend to the National League East leaders, in the process falling to 17-28 with only 15 games to go.
“I honestly believe that we can play with them,” Martinez said of the 28-19 Braves. “We beat them up a few games. They beat us up a few games. But if we had our regular lineup, if we had (Stephen) Strasburg here with us, I think we’d match up really well.”
Today’s game was all about Scherzer, and how even on days when he pitches like a guy seeking a fourth Cy Young Award he can still see it fall apart late.
Scherzer had good stuff, of that there was no question. And he made some of the Braves’ toughest hitters look meek, striking out Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna a combined five times. With two outs in the fifth, he already reached the 10-strikeout plateau for the 98th time in his career, surpassing Sandy Koufax for fifth place on the all-time list.
But this Atlanta lineup can produce runs even when the opposing pitcher has no-hit-caliber stuff. Freddie Freeman (2-for-2, double, walk off Scherzer), Travis d’Arnaud (2-for-3, double, RBI) and Markakis (2-for-3, double, RBI) proved that and accounted for the two runs that were needed to leave the game tied through four innings.
“That’s the big leagues,” Scherzer said. “It doesn’t matter how good your stuff is. It matters about going out there and getting results and locating the ball. That’s just what you have to do at this level.”
The Nationals, meanwhile, didn’t produce off Kyle Wright the way you’d expect against a guy who entered 0-4 with an 8.05 ERA, 2.211 WHIP and 8.5 walks per nine innings. They got a leadoff homer from Asdrúbal Cabrera in the second, then a double from Soto and two productive outs in the fourth to make it a 2-2 game, but they missed opportunities to do more against the Atlanta starter.
An especially odd play in the bottom of the fourth underscored the story. With two on and one out, Carter Kieboom hit something between a popup and a soft line drive to first base. Freeman camped under it, but then the ball bounced off his glove and fell to the ground. At which point Freeman picked it up and threw to Swanson to force out Eric Thames at second base. At which point Swanson threw to Riley to tag Suzuki out at third and complete a bizarre 3-6-5 double play to end the inning.
“That ball might drop, it might not,” Suzuki said. “Then you see him under it, you kind of go toward second base, ‘cause you don’t want to get doubled up. And then he dropped it, and I’m like 90 feet away from third base, and they do a double play. It’s just a freak play that you can’t explain. Just one of those weird plays.”
Did Freeman drop the ball on purpose? Braves manager Brian Snitker suggested it was not intentional, just a heads-up play once he dropped the ball. Whether it was on purpose or not, should the umpires enacted the infield fly rule while the ball was in the air, which would’ve given the two runners safety to retreat to their bases and not try to advance after he dropped it?
“I was waiting for the infield fly (call),” Martinez said. “They didn’t think it was a fly ball. I don’t necessarily know if Freddie dropped the ball on purpose, or ... it was weird. It’s something I’ll take a look at tonight, but it was just a weird play.”
Karma did help the Nationals out one inning later, when Albies had an easy 4-3 double play off Trea Turner’s bat but threw wide to first and watched as Freeman missed it and allowed the ball to end up in the dugout, allowing two runs to score and the Nationals to take a 4-2 lead.
With Scherzer at 104 pitches and having extended himself pretty well after five innings, Martinez could’ve turned to his bullpen and tried to close the game out right then. But he did not, and what happened next sure felt appropriate the way this season has gone.
“He’s our ace,” Martinez said. “And when you have these conversations and talk to him and he says he feels good ... for me, who else do you want out there in the sixth inning? If we got through that inning, we felt like we could cover seven, eight and nine. It didn’t happen today.”