Max Scherzer's fearless aggression on the mound is part of what places him among the absolute elite of his craft. He lives and dies by that never-back-down approach, a motto well-illustrated by the fact he led the majors in strikeouts this season, yet also topped the National League in home runs allowed. He prefers going right after those who step in the box to challenge him, knowing full well the danger of swimming in those waters.
That attitude, which has served him well so many times over the years, and so many times this year, was his downfall in the Nationals' 4-3 Game 1 loss to the Dodgers to begin the NL Division Series on Friday night in Washington. Scherzer got bit twice on first pitch strikes thrown right down the heart of the plate to dangerous hitters seeking just what he offered them.
Scherzer's first homer was on the initial pitch of the second at-bat of the game, as Dodgers rookie Corey Seager wasted no time making his presence felt with a towering shot to center field. Scherzer's second took place in the third inning, a two-run bomb launched by Justin Turner into the visitors bullpen in left. That made it 4-0 and spotted Clayton Kershaw a healthy early lead, one that he nearly let slip through his hands.
“I made some mistakes, and they cost me," Scherzer said. "Giving up those two home runs, I really feel like that was the difference in the ballgame. I take ownership of that, and I’m accountable for that.”
The Nationals chipped away, beginning with two runs in the third inning brought home on a single by Anthony Rendon. Bryce Harper sparked the rally with a one-out double, and Jayson Werth followed with a walk. The two then moved over on a double steal helped by a Kershaw ball in the dirt to set up Rendon's two-run knock.
The rally was halted by a Danny Espinosa strikeout, as he went down swinging on a pitch thrown about a foot above the strike zone. Espinosa also whiffed to end the fifth inning with runners on the corners. The Nats shortstop struck out in each of his three at-bats and left six total men on base.
"His swing was long tonight," manager Dusty Baker said. "That's what's kind of frustrating when... he was swinging at balls out of the zone, and then balls in the zone he wasn't catching up to."
Washington got one more run in the fourth keyed by two rookies. Trea Turner sailed a sacrifice fly to center field to score Pedro Severino, who reached with a leadoff double and moved to third on a groundout by Scherzer. The Nats then cut the Dodgers' lead to one and upped Kershaw's pitch count to 83 through four.
One of the Nats' most enticing opportunities off Kershaw came in the bottom of the second when an error at second base by Chase Utley loaded the bases with two outs. The rally was started with singles by Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman, who had two on the night. It was Severino who smacked a grounder right to Utley and used his plus-speed — by catcher standards — to reach first. That brought up Scherzer, who worked a full count against Kershaw, only to pop out on a bloop flyball to shallow left field, a swing that came on a would-be ball four.
Scherzer made it six innings on 91 pitches with four total earned runs allowed. He was replaced by rookie Wilmer Difo, who pinch-hit as the first player summoned off the bench by Baker. Lefty Sammy Solis took over on the mound and got them through the top of the seventh.
In the bottom half of that frame, Murphy drew a one-out walk but was thrown out attempting to steal second. Murphy was out of the starting lineup for the final 14 games of the regular season with a left buttock strain, yet he was given the go-ahead to steal in a big spot with the Nats down a run.
"I was surprised," Baker said, noting it was not a direct call from the dugout for him to run in that moment. "Our guys have a green light, if they think a guy is slow to the plate, which [Pedro] Baez is. I guess the leg felt better than I imagined."
"I thought he was slow enough for me to get, unfortunately he wasn't," Murphy said. "I can't get thrown out right there. It cost me an at-bat in the ninth inning as well, running into an out on the bases."
The Dodgers called on closer Kenley Jansen shortly thereafter hoping for a five-out save. He saw a host of pinch-hitters in the eighth, including Clint Robinson, who doubled with two outs. Chris Heisey, however, then struck out looking on a cutter that clipped the bottom edge of the zone. That out pushed the Nats to 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
Jansen would then bat in a critical spot for the Dodgers, who loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the ninth off Nationals closer Mark Melancon. Melancon quickly got rid of his counterpart with a swinging strikeout. Jansen, however, then went out and shut the door by dispatching Turner, Harper and Werth in order. That finished off five straight scoreless innings for both teams.
"That's just baseball," Harper said. "A hit there or blooper there and it's a different outcome. You've got to tip your cap to how their bullpen threw and how they played. Sometimes that happens."
The Nats did some damage against Kershaw with three runs off eight hits and a walk. That qualifies as an off-night for the three-time Cy Young winner, who allowed more than two runs just twice in 21 starts during the regular season. They battled his pitch count to places he didn't want it to go, and Kershaw showed fatigue at times. The sellout crowd of 43,915 did their best to rattle him with chants of his name.
It wasn't Kershaw's best day, but Scherzer didn't have the stuff required to take advantage and because of that, the Nationals may have let the Dodgers off the hook in a game they know was winnable, a game that could foster regret as this series moves on.