Nationals manager Dusty Baker made the right call in sticking with Max Scherzer in the bottom of the eighth inning Wednesday afternoon. That it didn't work out is beside the point. Life in the fast lane, etc.Baker has made maybe 10,000 tough decisions in 22 seasons as a Major League
Nationals manager Dusty Baker made the right call in sticking with Max Scherzer in the bottom of the eighth inning Wednesday afternoon. That it didn't work out is beside the point. Life in the fast lane, etc.
Baker has made maybe 10,000 tough decisions in 22 seasons as a Major League manager, but this wasn't one of them. Unfortunately for him, he watched a one-run, eighth-inning lead in Miami turn into a 2-1 loss to the Marlins.
This was one of those games where the storyline changed stunningly quick. When the bottom of the eighth inning began, Scherzer was closing in on his third career no-hitter.
He was Electric Mad Max, tenacious and growling, throwing 96 mph on the corner here, coming back with an 85-mph changeup there. He had retired 18 in a row when Marlins catcher A.J. Ellis bounced a single up the middle and off Scherzer's glove on his 106th pitch. (Statcast™ clocked the hit at 90.3 mph.).
Scherzer's 106th had been an 86-mph slider. His 105th was a 96-mph fastball. Was he tiring? Absolutely. Was he still Baker's best option? No doubt. At this moment, he may be the National League's best pitcher.
Better than Clayton Kershaw? Scherzer leads the NL with a 2.09 ERA and a microscopic 0.81 WHIP. He's also No. 1 in strikeouts, innings, batting average, you name it.
Maybe you'd still rather have Kershaw, and you wouldn't be wrong. Both are headed to the Hall of Fame. That we would even have a discussion pitting anyone against Kershaw speaks volumes about Mad Max's status in the game.
If Scherzer had been pitching for a lot of other teams, Ellis would have been his last hitter. Scherzer says 120 pitches is his limit, but 106 is a nice day's work.
Only thing is, the Nationals have some bullpen issues. Washington relievers have a 5.04 ERA, second-highest among all 30 Major League teams, and Wednesday was the eighth time the Nationals have lost when taking a lead into the seventh inning.
Baseball people say losing games late can be soul crushers that rip at the fabric of a clubhouse. And yet the Nationals are 43-29 and leading the NL East by 10 games.
Their lineup may be the NL's deepest, their rotation its best. If they can shore up the bullpen, they've got a chance to play well into October. And that's what their season is about at this point. In the past six seasons, the Nationals are tied with the Cardinals for the most regular-season victories (501) in either league.
But they have not been able to carry that success into October, and that's the hurdle they hope to clear in 2017. That's why general manager Mike Rizzo will attempt to acquire a proven closer by the non-waiver Trade Deadline, if not sooner.
Player Page for David Robertson of the White Sox is the most obvious solution, although Chicago GM Rick Hahn does not seem to be in a trading mood as long as his team is in contention. Royals closer Kelvin Herrera would be another great acquisition, but Kansas City is still in contention as well.
The Nationals have some very good arms, but none of them has established himself as the go-to guy. Baker has gotten saves from six different relievers, and his most likely in-house closers -- Koda Glover (back) and Shawn Kelley (right trapezius) -- are on the 10-day disabled list.
Either of them could return in time to nail down the job, but both have been inconsistent when they've had it. The Nationals have also shifted their top pitching prospect, right-hander Erick Fedde, to the bullpen in the Minors.
Rizzo says there's no way Fedde is going to be closing postseason games, but he could provide Baker with another quality option. Strip everything else away, and it's going to come down to Rizzo's ability to acquire a proven commodity for the ninth inning.
So those were the things rolling through Baker's decision-making process in the bottom of the eighth. Was Scherzer still his best option after 106 pitches?
Yes, he was.
Scherzer needed four pitches to get JT Riddle to ground out to second base (38.8 mph), and he should have been out of the inning four pitches after that when J.T. Realmuto hit a 66-mph grounder to shortstop Trea Turner.
First baseman Adam Lind was charged with an error for not catching Turner's throw, and that's when the wheels came off. Scherzer had thrown 114 pitches and still had a 1-0 lead.
Scherzer then hit Dee Gordon with his 115th pitch, a slider, to load the bases. Finally, the tying run scored on a wild pitch. Giancarlo Stanton followed by smoking a 108-mph liner to left to score the go-ahead run. That was Scherzer's 121st and final pitch. His last three were a 95-mph fastball and two 86-mph sliders.
Gordon was thrown out at the plate to end the inning, but the Marlins had all they would need. Afterwards, Baker didn't hesitate. He believed Scherzer was still his best option.
That may not be the right call weeks from now, when Glover has established himself as the Washington closer or after Rizzo talks the White Sox into dealing Robertson.
On Wednesday afternoon in South Florida, it was.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.