Max's masterpiece gives Nats 2-0 NLCS lead

October 14th, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- This kind of dominance has so often been routine for , who bullies opposing lineups and carries no-hitters deep into games. Five times in his postseason career he has carried a no-hitter past at least the fifth inning, three more times than anyone in MLB history.

In the Nationals' 3-1 victory in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on Saturday, Scherzer was at it again, following Anibal Sanchez's no-hit bid the night before with his own brush with history. Scherzer did not allow a hit until the seventh inning, when Paul Goldschmidt’s leadoff single was hit sharply enough that Juan Soto had to pull up to field the ball rather than make a diving attempt.

After being dominated by Nationals starters the past two nights, that qualified as a rally for the Cardinals, especially with the Nats clinging to a one-run lead. And it was a "jam" Scherzer quickly escaped. He struck out Marcell Ozuna on four pitches and induced a weak double-play ball off the bat of Yadier Molina before walking off the field fired up.

There wasn’t much disappointment that his pursuit of history was gone. Scherzer has made it clear, even playing in his hometown, that his singular mission is to help the Nationals get to the World Series, and the Nats are now two wins from that goal.

“Just throwing up zeros,” Scherzer said. “It's a 1-0 game, mistakes are ... It's razor thin out there.”

And yet, Scherzer walked that thin line perfectly. He finished the night with seven shutout innings of one-hit ball and 11 strikeouts, becoming just the second pitcher in postseason history to record that stat line, following Roger Clemens in Game 4 of the 2000 American League Championship Series.

“Typical,” shortstop said. “He’s been really good for a long time, no matter the situation, the opponent, whatever it may be. He’s been really good, and he was really good again today.”

Thanks to the dominance of their starting pitching, the Nationals have a commanding 2-0 lead in the NLCS, winning the first two games on the road before heading to D.C. for Game 3 on Monday. In seven-game series under the current 2-3-2 format, teams winning the first two games on the road have gone on to win 21 of 24 times.

Entering Saturday, only once in postseason history had teammates held an opponent hitless through the first five innings in consecutive games. That was in 2013, when Sánchez and Scherzer, then with the Tigers, held the Red Sox hitless in the first two games of the ALCS.

Now they've done it again.

“I didn’t remember that time until right now,” Sánchez said. “It’s amazing that it happened twice, especially because this is my first year on this team.”

It wasn’t long ago that Scherzer really didn’t seem like himself.

Scherzer made seven starts in the season's second half after coming off the injured list and posted a 4.74 ERA, a product of the eight homers he allowed -- compared with 10 homers in his first 20 starts. But it was here at Busch Stadium on Sept. 18, when he showed the first signs of recapturing his form. His final line from that game won’t reflect it after Soto lost a fly ball in the sun in the seventh inning and, as pitching coach Paul Menhart admits, the Nats might have pushed Scherzer’s pitch count too far, but he looked like the Scherzer of old: striking out 11, walking none, pitching into the seventh inning with just two runs on the board to start the frame.

It was that outing that allowed the Nationals to breathe a lot easier, knowing that it was only a matter of time until Scherzer was fully back.

And in this postseason, when the Nationals have needed him most, Scherzer has been excellent. In 20 innings he has given up four earned runs, with 27 strikeouts and eight walks. He has a streak of 13 consecutive scoreless innings, unyielding since Justin Turner’s homer in the first inning of Game 4 of the NL Division Series. On Saturday the Cardinals swung and missed at 19 of his 103 pitches and took another 18 for called strikes.

“It’s the velo, it’s the action on the pitches, it’s the command,” Menhart said. “The misses are fewer in the zone. He’s throwing balls where he wants to in the zone. That’s big. And then he makes strike-to-ball, that pitch more effective, and that’s where he gets his swings and misses.

“What else do you want me to say? He was Max.”