WASHINGTON -- The night before, after another sputtering offensive performance by the Nationals, their manager Dave Martinez said he believed they were on the verge of a breakout. A few key hits with runners in scoring position, Martinez said, and he believed those struggles could be put to rest.Those key
WASHINGTON -- The night before, after another sputtering offensive performance by the Nationals, their manager Dave Martinez said he believed they were on the verge of a breakout. A few key hits with runners in scoring position, Martinez said, and he believed those struggles could be put to rest.
Those key hits finally came on Saturday afternoon when the Nats busted out of their offensive slumber with a four-run sixth inning, which combined with another dominant performance from Max Scherzer on the mound led them to a 6-2 victory over the Rockies.
Trailing by a run entering the sixth, the Nationals started the inning with back-to-back singles from Wilmer Difo and Bryce Harper against Rockies right-hander Jon Gray. That set the stage for a game-tying single from Matt Wieters. Then, Michael A. Taylor executed a perfect safety squeeze on the next play to score Harper from third base. Moises Sierra, a late addition to the lineup after Brian Goodwin was scratched, then cleared the bases with a two-run double off the right-center field wall.
Sierra was called out trying to advance to third, but after he slid headfirst at the third base bag, he pounded the base with his hand repeatedly, with the crowd of 31,700 fans at Nationals Park behind him, a catharsis of sorts after days of frustration. On back-to-back days, the Nats had been held to one run on four hits and had been averaging less than three runs per game as they dropped eight of their past 10 games.
"It's something we've felt like we've been a swing away a lot," Wieters said. "So to be able to come through and get those swings is big for us. To put together a multiple-run inning as opposed to just stringing one [run] here and there."
On back-to-back days, the Nationals had been held to one run on four hits and had been averaging less than three runs per game as they dropped eight of their past 10 games. And they had managed just one run prior to that sixth inning, on a solo home run from Wieters in the fourth.
"I think we know the kind of offense we have," Taylor said. "Times like that are going to happen in a season, so we just keep pushing and keep grinding at bats and things like this will happen."
The offense gave Scherzer the support he needed after yet another dominant outing. He began the game with increased velocity, pumping fastballs near 97 mph, the kind of extra velocity he usually saves for late in the game. He attributed it to the 77-degree weather Saturday afternoon. But after a one-out walk in the first inning, Scherzer surrendered a two-run home run to Charlie Blackmon to give Colorado a 2-0 advantage. It would be the only hit he allowed for the remainder of the game.
"Max doesn't need much to turn up the intensity, but anytime he gets in an early hole, he turns it up right from the get go," Wieters said.
Scherzer retired the next 20 batters to finish off seven innings of two-run ball. He finished with 11 strikeouts, making this his third double-digit strikeout game of the year in only his fourth start. He is only the 13th pitcher in Major League history to record at least 10 strikeouts in three of the team's first 15 games. Scherzer now has 38 strikeouts, which leads MLB, and a 1.33 ERA.
"Today was just a great team win," Scherzer said. "Gave up those two early runs in the first, and it just turns into a game where you've got to grind and compete. I had enough confidence in our guys that if we could get to the third time in the order, I wanted to force their pitcher to try to match it. And fortunately guys came through and had a big sixth inning offensively to get the lead back."
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
With the game tied on Wieters' run-scoring single, the Nationals called for a safety squeeze bunt from Taylor, a play he was comfortable with because they had worked on it so often in Spring Training. And he executed it perfectly, laying a bunt down the first-base line with runners at the corners.
"Just get the bunt down and look for a good pitch," Taylor said. "It's not a [suicide] squeeze or anything like that, so I wasn't really worried about bunting anything that's thrown up there."
The play at the plate was close because Rockies first baseman Ian Desmond made a nice play to charge in, scoop the ball and flip it to the plate with Harper trying to score. Initially, Harper was called out, but the call was overturned after the Nats challenged and the replay showed his foot touching the plate just underneath the tag.
"It was a perfect bunt and [Desmond] made it a lot closer," Martinez said. "Harp had an unbelievable slide to make it home."
The Nationals will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day for Sunday afternoon's 1:35 ET series finale with the Rockies where all players and on-field personnel will wear No. 42 on their jerseys in honor of Robinson. Stephen Strasburg will take the mound aiming for a second straight stellar outing after he tossed eight shutout innings in his last start. Tyler Anderson starts for the Rockies.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.