Like most MLB teams, the Nationals entered the 2016 season with questions in their pitching staff. Max Scherzer, though, was not one of them.
The former Cy Young-winner and three-time All-Star is off to an unexpectedly bad start this season. He has a 4.35 ERA through five outings, which stands far above his Nats rotation-mates. On Tuesday night he allowed three runs on seven hits and four walks to the Philadelphia Phillies.
"You go through funks and right now this is a funk," he said. "I walked four guys tonight. That's just unacceptable."
Scherzer again found trouble in the first inning, as he has been prone to do, this time allowing a two-run homer to Andres Blanco. Eight of the 15 earned runs Scherzer has allowed this season have come in the first. He has a 14.40 ERA in the first inning and a 2.42 ERA in the others.
"I understand that I've given up a few runs here now in the first inning. That was something that I understand had happened in the past few starts. I even came out focused tonight trying to make something different. Six pitches in there was a home run. As much attention that I did have to it, right now it's just happening. If you do start thinking about it, then it's going to happen. You just have to trust your stuff," he said.
Scherzer believes he knows what is plaguing him and that is his fastball command.
"I just don't have great fastball location. My fastball's in a little bit of a funk right now. I know it, and I kind of know what I need to do. I'm just not getting extension through that pitch and I feel like that's the reason why I'm missing on command, why I'm throwing balls in certain situations where I'm typically throwing strikes. That's where it's just a minor adjustment of getting extension through the pitch. That allows me to attack the zone at the rate I'm usually capable of. I just need to make that adjustment so I can go out there and pitch to my abilities so that I can keep being efficient."
The good news is that Scherzer has recovered from rough Aprils like this before. He has allowed 15 earned runs through five outings this season, which is similar to the 14 he surrendered in five April starts in 2013, for example. That year he won the AL Cy Young award.
Scherzer also believes the rest of his repertoire is about where it should be.
"On the flip side, the off-speed pitches were there. Everything is not broke. This isn't a time where you just beat everything around and throw your glove around. The pitches are there. It's just a little fine tuning. That's the difference between dominance and being average at this level. It can be that fine of a difference," he said.
Now, for the bad news. The road ahead will not get any easier for Scherzer as he tries to tweak his mechanics and find better results. His next four starts are against the Cardinals, Cubs, Tigers and Mets. That's a brutal stretch, and one where Scherzer is really going to have to dig down deep to pull himself out of his current slump.
Another quote worth passing along from Scherzer was him on Blanco calling timeouts during his at-bats. Scherzer has spoken at length about holding runners at first in part by delaying his pitches. He holds the ball in his glove longer than usual before pitching to throw off the timing of a basestealer and tire them out with pickoff attempts.
Scherzer was asked about the timeouts and had this to say:
"That's on him. I'm going to hold the ball. I know how to shut down the running game. [Odubel] Herrera's a good runner. He can steal a base at will. I'll hold the ball. I don't get frustrated when the hitter calls time. He can call time all he wants. I don't get frustrated by that. I understand he probably doesn't want to sit there. If he calls time, that's on him. It's up to the umpire."