The opening third of the season could have gone better for the Washington Nationals.
The roster has plenty of talent. Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Trea Turner and of course, Max Scherzer, form quite a core. And yet, the Nats have scuffled all year, plagued in part by a car-crash of a bullpen, spinning a ghastly mid-6 ERA. They sit 5 games below .500 as of Thursday afternoon and have been outscored by 14 runs.
Rewind to last Sunday. After splitting the first two games of the road series with the Cincinnati Reds, the Nats sent their ace to the mound. The three-time Cy Young winner is a treat to watch and analyze not just because of his effectiveness, but also his demeanor. We’ve covered Scherzer in this series — spoiler: he was nasty — and as you might imagine, the images are just insane.
He pitches violently, almost as if the batter stole something from him, and now, finally, revenge is in sight. He pitches to conquer and refuses to tap. He’s a treat, a healthy dose of intensity to a sport that can at times feel mundane.
Let’s focus on his eighth-inning performance against the Reds.
If you make Max Scherzer mad, he only gets better
It’s the bottom of the eighth and the Nationals hold a 4-1 run lead. They decide to keep their ace on the mound. He’s already past 100 pitches; normally this would mean a call to the bullpen. But the Nationals bullpen is a disaster and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer. The choice is obvious.
Up first is Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. Mad Max leaves a fastball over the plate and Barnhart rips it to right field for a first-pitch double. Smart hitting here, and I don’t mean that sarcastically or to sound obvious. Scherzer is deep in the game and has a reputation for attacking; wise to sit fastball and be ready to pounce. Barnhart was ready.
Jose Peraza pinch hits for Michael Lorenzen with a chance to shorten the lead. There’s no indication that Nationals manager Dave Martinez wants to yank Scherzer yet. The ace gives Peraza a fastball away for ball one.
It seems foolhardy to wonder what Scherzer wants here; he always wants the strikeout, and he’s already racked up 13. Against Peraza with Barnhart on second, the goal is obviously a punchout or any other out that doesn’t advance Barnhart. That has to inform everything Scherzer does.
The righty delivers a down-away fastball, this one catching enough of the plate for the Reds infielder to knock it foul.
Love this pitch. Scherzer has set Peraza’s eyes away; he might naturally assume something offspeed is coming in the same spot. Ah, but Scherzer changes course and drives a fastball right under his hands. Peraza can only fly out weakly to the lip of the infield. One down.
Young center fielder Nick Senzel is up next, and what a nice test it would prove to be for the rookie. Senzel flashes a good bat. Here he’ll be battling an angry flamethrower with the game on the line. You don’t get these kinds of reps anywhere but the bigs.
Scherzer greets the future star with a fastball belt high and away for a called strike. Note the late run on that heater. Yikes.
Same principles as above are in play here. You want an out that keeps Barnhart put. Scherzer is pitching for the throat, I assure you, but another easy fly out would do the job too. (Barnhart isn’t a big threat to try and advance.)
Working with an 0-1 count, Scherzer drops a slider below the zone; Senzel shows some restraint in not chasing.
Senzel holds off on another slider, this one a tad further outside, to run the count 2-1. Well done.
Scherzer tries to sneak a fastball past Senzel in the same path as the slider; you’ll be shocked to learn that the future Hall of Famer is able to tunnel his pitches. Senzel has a nice swing, but you can tell he scrambled to knock this foul. In its own way, that’s impressive. The count is back in the hands of the pitcher, though.
It’s obvious Scherzer is intent on working Senzel away. After a couple sliders and a fastball, Mad Max drops a damn good looking changeup on the young center fielder. It’s called a ball … and I guess it’s low, but man. I think #31 wanted that one.
Full count. Good hitters work the at-bats in their favor, taking balls and spoiling strikes they don’t want until the pitcher submits, giving them something to drive. Senzel, for all I know, could have been hanging on for dear life the whole time here. It’s Max Scherzer, and he’s pissed. Surviving this long is no small feat.
Either way, through skill or desperation, Senzel is a pitch away from a free base in a three-run game. Great job.
Scherzer drives a fastball right over the plate — this is a real mano e mano deal — and Senzel knocks it foul. The fastball is a little much for him so far, but he stays alive. Scherzer has thrown a lot of pitches on a sunny afternoon in late May; making him work like this can reap rewards.
Scherzer wisely turns back to his epic changeup after the fastball, but it catches too much plate and the rookie bounces it foul. He appears to hit the catcher’s glove, but regardless. Senzel lives for another pitch.
The eighth pitch is the best fastball of the at-bat. Scherzer runs it under Senzel’s hands, but the kid shows some serious moxie by spoiling it foul. It might seem like nothing to keep fouling these off, but remember that Senzel is a rookie and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer in his pissed off final form. It’s a big moment and Senzel is hanging in there.
The ninth pitch of the at-bat almost seems like a mistake; did he really want to leave a changeup belt high like this? Maybe he did. Scherzer is an amazing pitcher and absolutely can read swings and intent from the batter.
Senzel swings right through the changeup — no doubt it looked just like a fastball off the mound — to bring Scherzer one out from stranding Barnhart.
What happens next is pure magic, as tremendous a scene as you’ll ever see. Scherzer knows he’s at a high pitch count — 117, to be exact. The Senzel at-bat was a lot of work, and he correctly assumes his manager will want to pull him to get the final out of the eighth with the bullpen.
But one does not simply pull Max Scherzer from a game he does not wish to leave.
Nationals TV color commentator F.P. Santangelo noted that Martinez had absolutely no chance to remove Scherzer here, and perhaps all he really wanted to do was give his ace a breather before he faced the final batter of the inning, Joey Votto. I suspect that’s the case, but make no mistake, the ace gets a big say in the matter.
After Martinez strolls back to the dugout, the broadcast shows Scherzer huffing and puffing on the mound. His intensity cannot be overstated as he a spins a curveball over the inside corner for a called strike one. Votto’s reaction suggests he didn’t read this well.
Wasting little time, Scherzer goes upstairs with a fastball well out of the zone … but he gets the call. This obviously upsets Votto, rightfully so. It’s a huge gift for the pitcher and tilts the at-bat heavily in Scherzer’s favor.
Max Scherzer’s 120th pitch of the day is a brilliantly located fastball that dots the outside corner. Paint it, black. Indeed. This is a badass pitch, a 97 MPH heater that locks up one of the more patient and disciplined hitters in modern baseball history. He never had a chance.
Note Scherzer’s brief glare as he exits the mound. I love that dude.