WASHINGTON -- Each start for Max Scherzer between now and the end of the regular season can almost be viewed as similar to a tuneup. The Nationals appear almost certain to claim one of the National League Wild Card slots with a 2 1/2-game advantage over the Cubs for the right to host that game at Nationals Park. Other than securing their spot in the postseason, ensuring that Scherzer is at the top of his game after he spent weeks working his way back from lingering back and shoulder injuries will be, perhaps, their top priority.
And Scherzer’s performance since coming off the injured list continues to be a mixed bag. On one hand, there have been games like this past Sunday -- where, with six innings of one-run ball, he looked like his old self, the dominant pitcher the Nationals are happy to have lined up to start a potential Wild Card Game. And then there are nights like Friday’s 5-0 loss to the Braves, where Scherzer appears to still be searching for his old form.
He was solid, but mostly unspectacular during his five innings on the mound, yielding three runs on seven hits with six strikeouts and two walks as the Braves’ relentless lineup forced him to throw 99 pitches. Scherzer credited Atlanta, who he was facing for the second straight outing, for making adjustments and driving his pitch count up. But he also acknowledged he was not at his sharpest Friday night, as he was outdueled by Braves starter Mike Soroka, especially with the location of his fastball.
“Just a culmination of everything,” Scherzer said. “Just being able to execute the pitches where you want to. I feel like the action on every pitch is pretty much where I want it. Just now it's coming down to location. There's little things I think I need to sharpen up mechanically to make sure that happens.”
For the most part, those tweaks Scherzer still wants to iron out appear minor.
Scherzer told manager Dave Martinez he felt good at the end of his outing even as he approached the 100-pitch mark, and he is back to his regular routine in between starts without limitations from his back and shoulder. Instead, Scherzer has been focused on his command and some mechanical adjustments to get back to normal.
Scherzer has now made six starts since returning from the injured list but has yet to eclipse the 100-pitch mark in any of them. In 30 1/3 innings, he has given up 14 runs (4.15 ERA) with 41 strikeouts and nine walks.
“There's no excuses in this league,” Scherzer said. “You've got to post and you've got to go out there with everything you've got, and you've got to execute. Everything is on the line every time you take the mound. It's Major League Baseball.”
Those numbers since coming off the IL are still respectable, but the spectacular has become so routine for Scherzer that the Nationals and Friday’s sold-out crowd of 39,730 almost expect him to be. With 16 games remaining on the schedule before the end of the regular season, the Nats want to get Scherzer back to a place where they can expect dominance almost routinely.
And despite an off outing Friday, they still have confidence he will get there.
“He was just a tick off today for me,” Martinez said. “But he battled through it. He really did. He gave us everything he had. … When we took him out he said he felt good. I said, ‘Let's see how you feel tomorrow and we'll get through it and here we go again next start.’"