ATLANTA -- Once Saturday's game at SunTrust Park went into extra innings, Nationals manager Dave Martinez turned to his ace, Max Scherzer, and told him to make sure he was wearing his cleats. Martinez knew he was managing with a short bench, and if the game extended deep into extras,
ATLANTA -- Once Saturday's game at SunTrust Park went into extra innings, Nationals manager Dave Martinez turned to his ace, Max Scherzer, and told him to make sure he was wearing his cleats. Martinez knew he was managing with a short bench, and if the game extended deep into extras, he would turn to Scherzer.
That opportunity arrived in the 14th inning, when Scherzer collected a pinch-hit single to ignite an improbable rally that led to Washington's 5-3 victory in its longest game of the season. With the Nationals scuffling for offense all afternoon Saturday, Scherzer drove a one-out single into center field for the first pinch-hit of his career. Two batters later, he raced around the bases from first base to score the winning run on Wilmer Difo's triple into the right-center-field gap.
"[Scherzer] got us going. It was a big moment," Martinez said. "All of a sudden, he goes first to home, and I'm holding my breath, but he was flying. I said, 'You can run'. He says, 'I can do it all.'"
Indeed, Scherzer continues to prove he can. He has won the National League Cy Young Award in each of the past two seasons and followed it up by winning the Pitcher of the Month for the first two months of 2018. Scherzer also stole his first career base earlier this season, and his slash line is now up to .310/.333/.345 this year.
After spending five seasons in the American League, Scherzer has transformed himself into a more-than-capable hitter since joining the Nationals, so much so that when Martinez told him he might pinch-hit, he began going through what he called his normal hitting routine in the batting cages by hitting off a tee and taking batting practice.
Few pitchers have a normal hitting routine.
"For me, I'm not going to be hitting the ball out of the ballpark. I know that," Scherzer said. "I've got a high-school swing. I know that. But you know what? It's good enough to get a ball in play."
After Difo's triple, Spencer Kieboom added an insurance run with an RBI single. That preserved a dominant pitching effort from the Nationals' bullpen, which tossed seven perfect innings, highlighted by three from right-hander Justin Miller, who struck out five in what he said was the longest outing of his pro career, and a scoreless frame from Sean Doolittle for his 14th save.
"If somebody else is doing good, then you want to go out there and do the same thing," Miller said.
The Nationals' offense struggled to provide much punch as they dropped the first two games of this four-game set in Atlanta, and a slow start on Saturday looked like they might be destined to lose a third straight. Washington's top three hitters went 1-for-18 with a walk and 11 strikeouts, and aside from a two-run home run from Michael A. Taylor in the second inning and a solo homer from Juan Soto in the seventh, the Nats rarely threatened for more.
That is what made Scherzer's single even more impressive. He provided the spark to carry them to a much-needed victory. The right-hander doesn't remember what he said when he arrived back to the dugout, other than letting out a scream.
"[Hitting coach Kevin] Long's not going to hear the end of this thing for a while," Scherzer said. "He's going to have to wait until the second half until I let that one go."
Trea Turner went 0-for-7 with a career-high five strikeouts to snap his career-best 13-game hitting streak.
HE SAID IT
"With my last start being in Baltimore, I felt like I haven't seen pitching in forever. For me, it was just try to get in there and try to see a fastball and try to swing at a fastball. I was trying to work on it in the cage, making sure I backed it up, but I was able to get enough on it and was able to put it in the right spot. I got lucky." -- Scherzer, on his approach at the plate
"Max is just a baseball player, he really is. He's a student of the game. He pays attention. He's analyzing, sitting there as we're talking." -- Martinez, on his conversations with Scherzer
The Nationals wrap up their 10-game road trip with Sunday's series finale at 1:35 p.m. ET in Atlanta as right-hander Jeremy Hellickson takes the mound, trying to continue his successful run as the team's fifth starter. In his past five starts, Hellickson owns a 1.30 ERA, and the Nats have won all five games. Right-hander Anibal Sanchez takes the mound for the Braves.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.