WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer showed up to Nationals Park on Wednesday with a broken nose, a black eye and his best fastball in years.
The Phillies had no chance.
Nevermind that they had been struggling offensively long before he dominated them in a 2-0 loss in Game 2 of a doubleheader. The Phillies had just three extra-base hits in Wednesday’s two-game sweep to the Nationals. They have scored just three runs in their last three games. They have lost 12 of their last 18 to fall four games behind the Braves in the National League East. They are as close to the Braves as they are the third-place Nationals, who are four games behind them.
“This is not the story of the season,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s the story of the last couple of weeks.”
Scherzer punctuated the Phillies’ recent struggles with a dazzling performance after breaking his nose Tuesday afternoon, when he bunted a ball off his face during batting practice. The Phillies wondered if they might have caught a break with Scherzer’s mishap. They did not. He emerged from the Nationals’ dugout a little more than 24 hours later to strike out 10 batters and allow just four hits in seven scoreless innings. His four-seam fastball averaged 96.2 mph, according to Statcast. It was his best four-seam velocity since Sept. 28, 2015, when it averaged 96.2 mph against the Reds. It had not been better since Sept. 7, 2012, when it averaged 96.9 mph against the Angels.
“He’s one of the best for a reason,” Phillies shortstop Jean Segura said.
“Really, Max is one of the best ever to toe the rubber,” Phillies right-hander Jake Arrieta said.
Arrieta had his best start since late last month, allowing one run in six innings. He allowed a solo home run to Brian Dozier in the second inning. It proved to be all the Nationals needed.
“It’s a low point for us, but they happen over the course of seven months,” Arrieta said. “We’ve played really well, we’ve played poorly. This is just one of those spots we need to try to get out of as quick as possible. We’re only a series away or a four- or five-game stretch away from being back on track. The guys aren’t really happy with the way the day went. It was a really long day for the guys. We have a chance to come out tomorrow, end on a high note and go back home and string some wins together.”
The Phillies had very few opportunities against Scherzer. Segura hit a flair single to left-center field to start the game. He should have been on second base, but he did not run hard out of the batter’s box. Kapler called it “unacceptable.” Scherzer retired the next three batters to end the inning.
“I'm just going to continue to stress, fully acknowledge, that Jean has to run harder in that situation,” Kapler said. “He gets it. We've discussed it. Now, we move on.”
“It wasn’t a good effort,” Segura said. “I was hitting and I kept watching the ball instead of running. I’m frustrated. I’ve never been in a slump like this in three years. As a player, sometimes you get into difficult moments and sometimes you do some bad things on the baseball field that you don’t realize it. I don’t have an excuse. I should have run hard out of the box and been on second instead of first. That can’t happen.”
Segura slashed .325/.371/.512 through May 23, but he has slashed .167/.232/.267 in 23 games since. Kapler hinted that Segura could be dropped from the leadoff spot Thursday. The leadoff spot has been a problem since Andrew McCutchen suffered a season-ending knee injury on June 3.
Bryce Harper worked a leadoff walk in the sixth, but Scherzer again retired the next three batters he faced. Scherzer allowed a leadoff double to Cesar Hernandez in the seventh, but then struck out Brad Miller swinging on a 97.5 mph fastball, Andrew Knapp swinging on a 96.7 mph fastball and pinch-hitter J.T. Realmuto swinging on a slider.
Kapler remained optimistic afterward. He said better days will come.
“I have an incredible amount of confidence in the group in this room,” Kapler said. “If I could speak directly to them right now, I would say, 'Keep your heads up.' This is the right group to go to the postseason and it’s getting stronger, we’re getting healthier and we have all the talent that we need to get this done.”