Dad-to-be Scherzer goes the distance, Nats sweep Marlins (updated)

There is, believe it or not, a scenario more imposing for a lineup than facing Max Scherzer. Daunting as that is, it’s nothing compared to the challenge of facing Scherzer five days after he was roughed up by another club.

Or, apparently, facing the longtime Nationals ace hours before his wife is due to give birth.

Every pitcher insists he wants to bounce back from a rough outing, but nobody actually does it better than Scherzer, who was battered around by the Blue Jays on Tuesday night and then decided to take his frustration out on the poor Marlins this afternoon.

With a 106-pitch complete game, Scherzer authored his best start of the young season, lifted the Nats to a 3-1 victory aided in large part by Ryan Zimmerman’s early three-run homer and added yet another chapter to his larger-than-life legend.

There are the two no-hitters. There’s the 20-strikeout game. There’s the broken nose game. There’s Game 7 of the World Series three days after his neck locked up on him. And now there’s the baby game.

Scherzer needed only 2 hours, 37 minutes to dispatch the Marlins, and there’s a good reason for that: He had someplace more important to be. Erica Scherzer is due to give birth to the couple’s third child this evening, and her husband headed straight from Nationals Park to the maternity ward minutes after he finished off the 12th complete game of his illustrious career.

“We knew going into it,” catcher Yan Gomes joked afterward via Zoom. “That’s why we tried to make it a quick game.”

Scherzer, of course, didn’t stick around to participate in his traditional postgame Zoom session with reporters. While he was rushing out to witness the birth of his third child, his teammates and manager were left to marvel over the latest epic chapter in his career.

“Typical of him to do something cool on, obviously, an interesting day for him,” Zimmerman said. “All of us are happy for him, excited for him. ... For him to go complete game and pitch the way he did today, then go over and have a baby with his wife, that’s a pretty cool day for him. We’re happy for him. He never ceases to amaze.”

No, he does not. And here we thought the most impressive aspect of Scherzer’s outing today was his bounceback from his last one, just the latest in a long line of those.

Nine times since signing with the Nationals in 2015, Scherzer has given up six or more runs in a start. And in nine subsequent starts, he owns a 2.31 ERA, having never been charged with more than three runs in any of them.

For all his natural abilities, Scherzer will forever be defined by his unmatched competitive drive. It’s the kind that makes him spit fire after a bad start and leaves him only more determined to right that ship the next time he toes the rubber.

Some may have been worried about Scherzer based on that last start. To be sure, he had a ragged performance in Dunedin, Fla., giving up seven runs (five earned), including a pair of homers to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. If, however, you’ve followed his career, you know better than to worry about the three-time Cy Young Award winner just because he has one bad start.

“He’s figured out how to bounce back, and it’s not something like he comes out and throws harder (or) he comes out and does something he hasn’t done before,” Gomes said. “It’s just a matter of him figuring out what was working and what wasn’t. ... I doubt if you ask him, he’ll ever tell you he was thinking about the Blue Jays outing.”

He did make the crowd’s heart flutter for a moment when he gave up a deep drive to left to Isan Díaz on his very first pitch of the afternoon. But Scherzer quickly found his groove after Josh Harrison tracked down that ball at the warning track and never looked back.

Through four innings, Scherzer faced the minimum, the lone blemish on his pitching line Corey Dickerson’s jam-shot single to right in the second that was immediately erased by a double play. He put two on in the fifth but had no trouble getting out of it. And when he walked off the mound at the end of the sixth, his pitch count was a scant 60, leaving open the possibility of the rarest of rare feats in today’s game: a complete game on fewer than 100 pitches, affectionately known as a “Maddux.”

“You tend to be tunnel vision, where you’re just making calls and making pitches and just trying to go with it,” Gomes said. “I looked up at the board, and he had like 60 pitches. That’s when you kind of know today’s going to be ... it’s already a good day.”

Scherzer also had the benefit of pitching most of the afternoon with a three-run lead, all three of them supplied by one of his fellow old guys on the roster with one mighty swing.

Playing time has been sparse so far for Zimmerman, not because he doesn’t deserve it but because the Nationals have faced only a few opposing lefties and manager Davey Martinez wants to continue to give Josh Bell opportunities to find his stroke. But the erratic schedule hasn’t hindered his effectiveness at the plate, not in the least.

Zimmerman-Rounds-Bases-HR-White-Sidebar.jpgZimmerman has looked reinvigorated in his return from a year off, and as long as his body doesn’t betray him, he is showing no signs of cooling off. He entered this game batting .326, and though he struck out on an 0-2 fastball in his first at-bat with Trevor Rogers, he was more than ready to pounce on the other 0-2 fastball he got from the lefty in the bottom of the third. He drove it 430 feet to center field for his fourth homer in 16 games this season to go along with 10 RBIs, tied with Trea Turner for second-most on the club despite about half as many plate appearances.

“The second at-bat, I just kind of said I wasn’t going to get beat on the heater,” Zimmerman said. “He threw me two decent changeups to start, and I was just ready for the heater. It’s kind of funny how on sometimes on 0-2 you just simplify it and just try to hit the ball hard. Sometimes those are your best swings.”

The Nationals wouldn’t do much of anything else against Rogers, who entered with a 1.29 ERA and looked very much the part of a star on the rise. There were a few more opportunities, but they went 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position and also ran themselves into yet another out when Victor Robles was caught trying to swipe third on the front end of a double steal.

On other days, that would’ve mattered. Not on this day. Not with Scherzer on the mound, determined to wipe out the bad memory of a substandard start five days earlier.

He did finally prove human in the top of the ninth. After taking the mound to a standing ovation, Scherzer gave up a leadoff homer to Díaz, who 2 1/2 hours after his warning track out finally got enough muscle on one to clear the fence.

But that’s all the Marlins were getting today. Scherzer calmly finished it off, retiring Dickerson on his 106th pitch of a brilliant afternoon and adding another impressive line to his extensive resume on a day that was about more than another pitching performance.

As he sat in the interview room at Nationals Park, wearing the Caps rally helmet that’s supposed to go the player of the game, Zimmerman acknowledged he had to take over the responsibility today.

“I told him I would take care of it, since he had some important stuff to do,” said Zimmerman, himself the father of three. “I told him I would take it, just this one time. So he owes me a babysitting later down the road.”

Zimmerman then paused and reconsidered what he had just suggested.

“I don’t know if I would want Max to babysit my kids, though.”

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