Snarling, grunting Max Scherzer will stomp around the mound like a predator stalking his prey. But his alter ego - masterful, riveted Max Scherzer, who carves up an opposing lineup - can be just as intimidating and effective.
The Yankees saw a little of both versions on Saturday in a 4-3 victory over the Nationals, punctuated by a season-high 14 strikeouts by Scherzer plus a couple of notable achievements in the record books by the ace, who was long gone by the time an infield hit scored the winning run in the 11th.
“It was a tough one,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session. “Like I said, we caught some bad breaks there. But that’s the beauty of the game. It really is. Sometimes you win games like that. Sometimes you fight, you fight back and things just don’t happen your way.”
Scherzer departed with a lead in the eighth, but Brad Hand couldn’t close out the game, battling wildness in the ninth inning before surrendering a game-tying single by Gleyber Torres that deprived Scherzer of a victory.
“I just had a tough time commanding the fastball early,” Hand said. “Falling behind guys basically that whole inning before I started to feel a little bit better as that inning went on. Just mechanically I was little bit off right there and I had a tough time commanding my fastball,”
Facing Aroldis Chapman in the 10th, the Nats inserted Andrew Stevenson as a pinch-runner for Alex Avila, the automatic runner placed at second base. Victor Robles singled to right on an 0-2 pitch, putting runners at the corners, before Trea Turner connected on a sacrifice fly to right on a 2-2 fastball clocked at 101 mph. With Josh Harrison batting, Robles stole second on a ball that got by the catcher, but Harrison struck out and Juan Soto was intentionally walked before Ryan Zimmerman struck out.
Hand returned for the 10th, with Clint Frazier starting at second as the automatic runner, but Mike Ford failed to get a sacrifice bunt down before singling to left-center to plate the tying run. Kyle Finnegan replaced Hand and got a fielder’s choice grounder, a popout and a strikeout to escape further damage.
Against Justin Wilson in the 11th, the Nats stranded automatic runner Zimmerman at second. Tanner Rainey took over for the Nats and walked Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge to load the bases. The Nats brought in Jordy Mercer as a fifth infielder, hoping for a play at the plate, but Rainey couldn’t grab Gleyber Torres’ dribbler to the third base side of the mound and automatic runner DJ LeMahieu scampered home with the decisive run.
“Slow roller up the third base line and getting over there as fast as I can,” Rainey said. “May have rushed it a little bit, may have had more time than I thought. Not really sure, still haven’t seen anything on the end of the game (on video). Just trying to make the play, hopefully get the guy at the plate, and then start over and battle again.”
Persistent showers delayed the start of the game for 2 hours, 22 minutes. But when the rain briefly cleared, it gave way to a pitchers’ duel between Scherzer and the Yankees’ Corey Kluber, who between them have five Cy Young Awards.
Scherzer, coming off a complete-game 3-1 win over the Marlins on Sunday - after which he dashed to the hospital for the birth of his third child, his first son - prevailed. He yielded a run on two hits and walked none over 7 1/3 innings.
His lone mistake - a center-cut slider that hung long enough for Kyle Higashioka to sock it into the left field stands for a solo homer with one out in the third - briefly knotted the game. But the Nats, held largely in check by Kluber over his 5 2/3 frames, scratched out the tiebreaking run in the sixth on a double by Kyle Schwarber and an RBI single by Starlin Castro.
Scherzer retired the first seven hitters, striking out six in a row - and got 13 straight through the eighth inning, when he issued a leadoff walk to Frazier.
Scherzer recorded two strikeouts in a 10-pitch opening inning, fanning Stanton looking with a slider and Judge swinging on a changeup to move past Mickey Lolich and into 20th place on the all-time strikeout list with 2,833.
The second inning saw Scherzer turn up the heat, getting Torres looking, Brett Gardner swinging and Frazier looking - all on mid-90s fastballs.
By the time Scherzer took the mound in the third, he had a 1-0 lead. With one out in the top of the third, the Nats loaded the bases on an Avila single, a Robles bunt single and a single by Turner. After Avila was wiped out at home on a 5-2 fielder’s choice off the bat of Harrison, Soto drew a walk on a 3-1 changeup from Kluber to force in a run.
Scherzer ran his strikeout streak to six in a row when he got Ford swinging, but his middle-middle slider on a 1-2 count to Higashioka was ripped into the left field stands for a 1-1 tie.
“For me, that’s the difference in the game,” Scherzer said. “If I could execute that pitch better, maybe we win the game.”
The right-hander fanned the side again in the fourth, upping his whiff count to 10, the 100th time in his career he’s had 10 or more strikeouts in a game. No. 10 came on a 94 mph four-seamer that locked up Gardner on an 0-2 count. He joined a select group of hurlers with 100 or more 10-strikeout games: Nolan Ryan (215), Randy Johnson (212), Roger Clemens (110) and Pedro Martinez (108).
“Obviously, it’s pretty cool to join that club,” Scherzer said. “It’s tough for me to really put that in perspective. ... I don’t like getting involved in what that means; I think it’s more important to hear what other guys think it means.”
Martinez was thrilled with Scherzer’s outing, even if the end result was a loss.
“Max, he was just attacking the strike zone with all his pitches,” the manager said. “He was working ahead a lot, his slider was really effective. But his fastball was really good.”
Kluber got two outs in the sixth - as rain began to pelt the field for about a half-hour - before the Nats put together a couple of hits to take a 2-1 lead and force the right-hander from the game. Schwarber pulled a double into the right field corner and Castro plated him with a single up the middle for his team-leading 14th RBI.
When Frazier drew a walk to start the eighth, Scherzer had to work out of the stretch for the first time since the third inning. Scherzer got Ford to sky to right field on his 109th pitch of the game, and Martinez called for Daniel Hudson from the bullpen.
“When we sent (Scherzer) out for the eighth, I told him, ‘You’ve got 110 pitches today,’ ” Martinez said. “He was good with it. We got him out of there at 109, he got the out we needed and Huddy came in and finished the inning.”
Hudson caught Higashioka looking at a third strike and retired pinch-hitter Miguel Andújar on a grounder to second to escape the eighth.
Hand got into immediate trouble in the ninth, suffering his first blown save as a National. He walked LeMahieu, who went to second a groundout by Stanton. Judge flared a single to right, but LeMahieu couldn’t advance past third. Torres lined a run-scoring single to right to tie the game at 2-2.