GAME IN A NUTSHELL: With the series hanging in the balance and every game carrying more weight as the calendar approaches August and the Mets looming in the rear view mirror, the Nationals very much needed Thursday's matinee at Marlins Park. So they turned to their ace, their longtime slugger, their former closer and their new closer to pull off a 1-0 victory.
Ryan Zimmerman provided all of the offense, launching a leadoff homer in the top of the second off old pal Dan Haren. The Nationals did nothing else of real consequence at the plate, but they didn't need it because Scherzer was in top form. The right-hander tossed seven scoreless innings, battling out of a couple of jams to maintain that 1-0 lead before handing it over to his bullpen.
And that new-look bullpen was perfect. Drew Storen retired the side in the eighth, striking out two, just as he did Wednesday night. And Jonathan Papelbon made his Nationals debut by retiring the side in the ninth, striking out Michael Morse (who had reportedly already been traded to the Dodgers) to end it in style and allow the Nats to maintain at least a 2-game lead over the Mets heading into a huge series this weekend.
HITTING HIGHLIGHT: There was some concern when the Nationals activated Zimmerman off the disabled list Tuesday despite his 1-for-10 performance while on rehab with Class AA Harrisburg. Maybe the veteran slugger needed more time to get his swing down. But you have to be careful putting much stock in rehab assignment stats. It's more important what kind of at-bats a player produces, and by all accounts Zimmerman looked good while in the minors. There's no debating how good he has looked since rejoining the Nationals. Headlined by his homer in the top of the second — his first since May 19 — Zimmerman went 4-for-11 with three extra-base hits this series.
PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: He may have gone only seven innings, but these were some high-stress innings for Scherzer, with no margin for error given the 1-0 lead his teammates gave him. And as he has done so many times this year, the right-hander delivered. He induced a huge double play out of Christian Yelich to end the sixth. Then he blew away Adeiny Hechavarria on a 95-mph to end the seventh. Based on the way his jersey looked completely soaked by the end of his afternoon, it's probably safe to say Scherzer worked hard for this one.
KEY STAT: Though he is averaging more innings per start (7.14 vs. 6.68), Scherzer actually is averaging fewer pitches per outing (102 vs. 110) this season than he threw last season.
UP NEXT: Though Friday's 4 p.m. trade deadline will dominate most of the discourse around baseball, the Nationals have a pretty important ballgame to play as well. They head to New York to open a huge weekend series with the Mets, with first place in the NL East at stake. It'll be Gio Gonzalez (8-4, 3.83) against Matt Harvey (9-7, 3.16) at 7:10 p.m. EDT.