Scherzer and bullpen combine for 1-0 shutout of Cards (updated)

Max Scherzer still has it, thank you very much. And the Nationals bullpen still has some intestinal fortitude, in case you were wondering.

On a cold, windy late afternoon in which their offense asked them to make one early run hold up, Scherzer and three Nats relievers did just that, eking out a 1-0 victory over the Cardinals by the skin of their teeth to capture their second series in a week from St. Louis.

“We’d like to win by more,” Scherzer said on Zoom afterward. “But hey, sometimes you’ve got to win these games. In cold weather like this, one can stick.”

One run (provided early by Alex Avila) did indeed stick on a 53-degree late afternoon that felt far colder thanks to a persistent northwest wind that at gametime registered 30 mph.

It stuck because Scherzer was brilliant again, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the first and tossing six scoreless innings on 109 pitches to continue his stellar April. And it stuck because, with zero margin for error, Tanner Rainey, Daniel Hudson and Brad Hand combined to close it out, Hudson escaping his own bases-loaded jam during a long top of the eighth that appeared to use up every ounce of strength the veteran reliever still had at his disposal.

Bell-Safe-at-Home-White-Sidebar.jpgAnd on the strength of Avila’s second-inning RBI double, the Nationals pulled off their second 1-0 victory of a 4-3 homestand, taking two of three from the Cardinals one week after they did the same at Busch Stadium.

At 7-9 overall, there remain plenty of issues. But given all they’ve had to deal with already in 2021, it feels like a mild success story.

“I’d much prefer being 9-7, above .500,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But you know what? Like I told them again tonight: Keep playing, keep grinding, go 1-0 every day. That’s who we are. Don’t change anything. Keep plugging away. We’re going to be fine.”

Though Scherzer led the way today, the win was only possible because of the three zeros posted by Rainey, Hudson and Hand. Rainey, who blew a 1-0 lead Tuesday night, had no such trouble in the top of the seventh today. The nerve-wracking inning this time was the eighth, during which Hudson got two quick outs but then loaded the bases on two walks and a single.

His pitch count climbing all the way to 31, Hudson found a way to get Matt Carpenter to fly out to right, then hunched over on the mound and breathed a sigh of relief, his arm perhaps dangling all the way back to the dugout after a hard-earned hold.

“It was just a grind of an outing, mentally and physically,” said Hudson, who threw 15 pitches in a 1-2-3 eighth the previous night. “Once I got to about 20 pitches or so, I kind of felt a little bit of fatigue. It’s just one of those outings you’ve got to push through. Hopefully they hit it at somebody, and they did.”

Hand had far less trouble in the ninth, issuing a leadoff walk but inducing a 6-4-3 double play en route to his third save in as many tries, all of them coming against the Cardinals.

It would be an afterthought by night’s end, but Scherzer’s outing began in less-than-ideal fashion. His third pitch of the game struck leadoff hitter Tommy Edman, and a Nolan Arenado infield single and seven-pitch walk of Paul DeJong later, the Cardinals had the bases loaded.

Scherzer, though, gutted it out and escaped the jam entirely on his own. He struck out Dylan Carlson on a 3-2 cutter, then blew away Carpenter with a 96-mph fastball and stalked off the mound having posted a zero despite needing 26 pitches to do it.

Scherzer would again let two runners reach in the top of the second, though the first was wiped out by a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play with assistance from Avila behind the plate and Josh Harrison at second base. But then he settled in, found his groove and never looked back.

“I know the pitch count was elevated,” he said. “That’s when you’ve got to stay within yourself and not get to that mentality (of worrying about the pitch count). Just fill up the zone, be aggressive, use your pitches and try to collect quick outs.”

Scherzer would proceed to retire 12 batters in a row, and proved so efficient he was able to reach the sixth inning despite his pitch count of 49 after only two frames. He again relied on his fastball more than anything else, inducing eight swing-and-misses off it. But he was effective with every pitch in his arsenal, getting eight more whiffs on his slider, cutter, changeup and curveball.

And with that, Scherzer further distanced himself from a shaky opening day start that felt worrisome at the time but feels like ancient history now. Since serving up four solo homers in his first three innings of the season, the 36-year-old has allowed only one run over 22 innings, that lone run coming when Victor Robles lost a ball in the sun at Dodger Stadium.

Four starts in, Scherzer owns a 1.80 ERA and a 33-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio that would be making national headlines if not for Corbin Burnes’ record-breaking April in Milwaukee.

“I’m always priding myself on throwing strike one, working ahead in the count,” Scherzer said. “When I can do that, that’s when I pitch my best. ... But even when I’m behind in the count, I’m able to throw any pitch at any time for a strike. That keeps you out of hitters being able to do damage against you, and try to prevent the walk.”

The Nationals didn’t provide their ace much run support today, but they provided enough, thanks to his batterymate. Avila made only his third start behind the plate, his second with Scherzer, and he delivered a pair of doubles, the first of which left his bat at 106 mph and made a beeline for the gap in left-center, bringing Josh Bell all the way home from first for a 1-0 lead.

“I’ve been working every day with (hitting coaches Kevin Long and Pat Roessler) in the cages,” Avila said. “I’ve felt good the whole time, and I’m not someone who needs a ton (of at-bats) to stay in a rhythm. Knowing that I’m not playing on a regular basis, I can stay sharp.”

The Nats wouldn’t do much else against Cardinals righty Carlos Martínez, but Scherzer didn’t need anything more. Then it was just a matter of the same three relievers who closed out Tuesday’s win attempting to do the same today.

They did, and because of it a homestand that could’ve been defined by so many negative developments actually ended on a legitimate high note.

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