Throughout the first half of the season Max Scherzer was the lone bright spot for a Nationals rotation that was expected by many to be among the very best. Somehow he managed to look like a better pitcher after signing a record free agent contract to come to Washington.
But that has simply not been the case in the second half of the season and particularly as of late. The Nats right-hander has seen his trademark command elude him and the results have featured a staggering uptick in home runs.
Scherzer's problems continued on Monday in what amounted to the biggest game of the Nats' season so far, a series opener against the first-place New York Mets. The Nationals needed Scherzer to be at his best in what was a favorable pitching matchup. He was anything but.
Scherzer made it through six innings, but gave up five earned runs on seven hits, including three homers. He lasted six innings, giving up a run in each of his last three frames.
Scherzer pointed to the location of his pitches as the biggest reason he is giving up so many homers, in particular. The former Cy Young-winner has now allowed 14 of them in his last nine starts.
"I’m just making mistakes in the zone. I’m leaving the ball thigh-high instead of getting the ball down at the knees. That’s something that’s been symptomatic here, it seems like, in the second half. That’s something I got to get better at. I got to get better at getting the ball down in the zone, getting it back down to knee level. That’s what’s gonna keep me up late tonight is figuring out how I should do that," he explained.
The Nationals spotted Scherzer with a five-run lead after the fourth inning, but it wasn't enough. That fact was not lost on the Nats' starter.
"I’m just disappointed I wasn’t able to hold that lead. That’s something I take pride in is when you get a lead like that and your offense wakes up and responds. – [Wilson Ramos] hits a big grand slam and we go up 5-3. I take pride in just putting up those zeroes to be able to turn it over to the bullpen. It’s extremely frustrating that I wasn’t able to do that," Scherzer said.
Scherzer allowed two solo home runs in the second inning to Michael Conforto and Kelly Johnson. The third was also a solo shot, a high flyball hit by Yoenis Cespedes to lead off the fourth.
Scherzer gave up his fourth run on a double by Curtis Granderson in the fifth. His spot in the order would come up in the bottom half of the frame with the Nats nursing a one-run lead. There were two outs and runners in scoring position.
Instead of going to his bullpen, manager Matt Williams opted to let Scherzer bat and go one more inning. Scherzer was at 89 pitches, but had already given up four runs through five innings. The decision backfired.
Scherzer made good contact with a pitch from Carlos Torres, but it went right to Johnson at second base. He then ran into more trouble while on the mound in the sixth.
Cespedes got to Scherzer again by leading off with a double. He would then reach third on a balk called on Scherzer by home plate ump Paul Nauert. That allowed Cespedes to score and tie the game on a lineout to left field by Travis d'Arnaud.
Here is how Scherzer described the balk:
"He said my hands moved somehow. I don’t know. I looked at replay, I really don’t think they moved but that was his opinion. I knew from the previous two pitches … I had an inclination Cespedes was gonna try to steal. So I had a long hold. When he went, it didn’t really fluster me at all. I just turned my head and looked and the umpire called me for a balk."
Williams was asked multiple times about the decision to leave Scherzer in there for the sixth after the 8-5 loss. It was a call that could have gone either way, but ended up biting him.
"[Scherzer's] our No. 1 for a reason," he said. "I’m hoping that he would get through that. Righty, starting it off. And Cespedes started it off with a double. And then the balk. And then the sac fly. He’s our best option in the sixth. He’s our horse going out there."
Scherzer has now given up four earned runs or more in four of his last six outings. He had a 2.11 ERA through 18 starts (132 IP) before the All-Star break. In his 10 starts since he has a 5.12 ERA (58 IP).
The expectations of regular dominance from Scherzer have almost become a distant memory at this point. At one point this season he was quite easily their best starter. Lately he's been one of their weakest links.