WASHINGTON -- Thunder rumbled as the skies darkened, illuminated sporadically by bolts of lightning Thursday night. Unrelenting downpours quickly followed, pelting the field with force in the Nationals' rain-shortened 4-1 loss to the Yankees on Opening Night.
It was as if the weather was in sync with the dominance of the pitching performance going on the mound below.
Max Scherzer faced off against Gerrit Cole in an Opening Day matchup with postseason intensity and familiarity, reminiscent of the 2019 World Series in which they both competed. Scherzer was beginning the Nationals' pursuit to defend their title; Cole was trying to help the Yankees reach the feat he had fallen short of with the Astros last year.
"Max, he has a plan going into every game," manager Dave Martinez said. "He studies hitters. I know he waited a long time to get to the opener, as we all did. He was a little fired up, a little antsy, but he settled down and started pitching really well."
After giving up an early home run to Giancarlo Stanton in the fourth at-bat of the game, Scherzer locked in for 11 strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. He allowed four runs off six hits before the skies opened up for a delay of one hour and 58 minutes before the game was called.
Scherzer didn't need more time than that to tally his 94th career game of 10 or more strikeouts, putting him in the same company as Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Sandy Koufax.
"I just made better pitches," Scherzer said. "I got hit a little bit there early, but I was able to execute some other patches as well. As much as I can beat myself up over tonight, there's also some good things that came out of today that I'm happy with. Sometimes you've just got to take your lickings to understand you can be better in the long run."
Scherzer reached 99 pitches. Sixty-two were for strikes, including 14 swinging strikes off 34 sliders thrown. His fastball reached 97.2 mph, though he was targeting better location with it.
"Honestly, I thought my offspeed stuff was good and it was sharp," Scherzer said. "I thought I had putaway pitches. Unfortunately, my fastball location, I was kind of getting crossfired. Every time I tried to throw arm side, I was going glove side. Glove side, arm side. So I didn't pitch quite as efficiently and it creates some mistakes where I wasn't locating it as well as I could have. But sometimes that's going to happen, and you just try to make the fix and move on to the next start."
Scherzer is no stranger to the spotlight of pitching on Opening Day. He embraces it. Scherzer entered the season with a 1.27 ERA in four starts in the commemorative game. Thursday marked his third Opening Day game with 10-plus strikeouts. Only Johnson, Martinez, Félix Hernández and Bob Gibson have reached that mark, and Scherzer became the first to do it three years in a row.
This Opening Day in particular, though, had extra meaning to Scherzer. Not only was he defending the Nationals' championship, he was appreciating the fact baseball was being played in 2020 -- even if it came with some rain.
"This one's a little different," Scherzer said. "So much work has had to be put into this to make this one happen. I think this one signifies more of what's gone on in the game, what's gone on in the country, to be able to put this season on. Through all the hard work from everybody involved to be able to get testing, protocols, to having players buy in and know that we're actually trying to do this literally as safe as possible to going out there and just following the protocol. … I can go out there and compete, have a smile on my face."