WASHINGTON -- It’s as if Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park was a resumption of the end of the 2018 regular season for the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, who kept up his historic stinginess of not allowing runs, and the Nats’ Max Scherzer, who continues to collect strikeouts at a rapid pace. The two starters more than lived up to the hype surrounding this meeting between the last three National League Cy Young Award winners, who finished first and second in the voting in 2018. They also made Opening Day history.
Both Scherzer and deGrom recorded double-digit strikeouts, just the second Opening Day game in which both starting pitchers have had at least 10 punchouts. Yet, the difference in the game was Robinson Cano, who hammered a solo home run against Scherzer in the first inning and added a run-scoring single in the eighth to lead New York to a 2-0 victory.
It spoiled a spectacular opening act from Scherzer, who racked up 12 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings, an Opening Day franchise record for the Nationals and Expos. He’s just the 16th player in MLB history to record that many strikeouts on Opening Day. It was the second consecutive Opening Day start in which Scherzer has recorded double-digit strikeouts as he became just the fourth pitcher in MLB history to do so in back-to-back seasons, joining Felix Hernandez, Randy Johnson and Walter Johnson. He’s just the 16th player in MLB history to record that many strikeouts on Opening Day.
“I felt good out there,” Scherzer said. “I felt like I was executing pitches. The only pitch I didn’t quite execute the way I wanted to was the cutter. It was good, but I wasn’t executing it exactly the way I wanted to. Every other pitch I felt like I was executing it or missing the spot that I wanted to. So from that standpoint, this is a great first start for me to go out there again and make a little adjustment on the cutter and go out there and compete again.”
Scherzer was locked in from the start of the game. He fanned the first batter he faced, Brandon Nimmo, on three straight pitches. Scherzer flashed his best stuff early on, dialing his fastball up to 97.5 mph during the first inning before striking out the next batter, Pete Alonso. But a changeup was left too much over the heart of the plate, and Cano deposited it into the seats in left-center field in his first at-bat with his new club.
Scherzer quickly settled back into the game and cruised through seven innings. Then in the bottom of the seventh, with the Nats trailing by a run, Scherzer was allowed to hit for himself with two outs and nobody on, a curious decision to leave power-hitting left-hander Matt Adams on the bench instead of giving him a chance to tie the game.
“I was trying to give [Scherzer] a chance to stay in the game, win the game,” manager Dave Martinez said. “And I knew we had six outs with our top guys coming up to hit.”
Martinez also said he wanted to save Adams for a potential matchup later in the game against Jeurys Familia or Edwin Diaz, but he never had an opportunity to pinch-hit Adams as the tying run again.
Scherzer never even made it out of the next inning, retiring two batters but issuing a walk to Dominic Smith, who would eventually come around to score on a run-scoring single from Cano off Matt Grace, who Martinez decided to use instead of fellow lefty Tony Sipp because he liked the matchup of Grace’s two-seamer against Cano. It didn’t work out, and New York’s bullpen sealed the victory.
A year ago, deGrom bested Scherzer in the race for the NL Cy Young Award. And Thursday’s game followed a familiar tune, with deGrom narrowly outdueling Scherzer in a matchup of two of the game’s best pitchers.
“We got some chances against Jake. He made some good pitches today and just got out of some jams,” Scherzer said. “Sometimes you just got to tip your hat. He pitched well. ... There’s a lot of good from our end that happened today, but it just wasn’t enough to get it done today.”