ATLANTA -- The restrictions were off for Max Scherzer on Sunday afternoon, the first time in four starts back from the injured list that he and the Nationals felt comfortable pushing his limits.
Even in the first few weeks since his return, he had been pitching with limitations, some implemented by the team, such as pitch counts or extra days of rest, and some self-imposed, as he kept himself from pitching at full intensity until he felt fully recovered from his back and shoulder injuries. In Sunday's 9-4 victory over the Braves at SunTrust Park, however, Scherzer looked like his old self once again.
Take for instance how he escaped a jam in the fourth inning, punching out Dansby Swanson and Tyler Flowers to strand runners on second and third. Or when he retired the heart of the Braves’ order on seven pitches in the sixth, capped off with a glare at Josh Donaldson, as the righty walked off the field after making a no-look catch on a line-drive comebacker. Even as he approached the 100-pitch mark, Scherzer hit for himself, collected a single down the first-base line and then swiped second base, igniting a four-run rally in the top of the seventh.
"There's no doubt he's starting to feel [good again],” said bench coach Chip Hale, who filled in as manager after Dave Martinez and shortstop Trea Turner were ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the fifth inning. “Yeah, that tells us. We're over there going, ‘Don't run, don't run.’ We are telling him, ‘Easy, easy.’ Max is going to do what Max is going to do.”
It was the most encouraging outing to date for Scherzer, who helped the Nationals avoid a sweep by holding Atlanta to two hits in six innings with nine strikeouts. His only blemish came in the second inning when he allowed a solo homer to Matt Joyce. But he showed an extra gear during this outing that he has not been comfortable pushing himself since he came off the IL from a strained rhomboid muscle.
“I'm just frustrated it took this long,” Scherzer said. “I’ve been wanting this to happen a lot quicker than the way it has been, and doing everything to make it happen.
“So, to go out there today and feel good about it and feel good about where I am with health, make it through the start and pitching where I need to pitch, in my mind it took too long, but there's nothing I can do about it.”
After dropping three of the four games this weekend in Atlanta, the reality for the Nationals’ postseason dreams is that they will have to survive the National League Wild Card Game. They extended their advantage over the Cubs for the top Wild Card spot to three games, and the Nats own a 4 1/2-game advantage over the D-backs for a spot in the game at all.
So, perhaps, their most important task in the next three weeks is to make sure Scherzer is back to feeling 100 percent to start that win-or-go-home game.
There are still a few areas Scherzer wants to sharpen. He still thought he could be more efficient with his pitch count, and although he was happy with the location of most of his misses, it’s another minor detail he will work on tweaking in between starts.
But he has time to focus on those details now that he is back to his normal routine in between starts. And if the Nationals can take one positive away from this weekend, it’s that their ace made a huge step to getting back to his most dominant pitching form.
“I think he's back to where he feels like he can throw any pitch at any time and sort of step on that gas pedal when he needs to,” Hale said. “That's what he keeps telling us…. He had enough to go, I think, 110 [pitches] today. He felt pretty good about himself."