WASHINGTON – This might be a worst nightmare for the Cubs in October, a $210 million ace at the absolute top of his game, using all his weapons and making this lineup look helpless. The Washington Nationals seem unbeatable when Max Scherzer pitches like this.
Scherzer took a perfect game into the sixth inning on Monday night at Nationals Park, giving the Cubs flashbacks to the New York Mets and the power pitching that swept them out of the National League Championship Series.
“That’s what we ran into last year,” manager Joe Maddon said after a 4-1 loss. “We ran into the Mets and we didn’t put the ball in play enough, and that’s what we got to really strive to do – at least move the ball and give ourselves a chance.”
The Cubs (43-19) upgraded their lineup by committing $240 million to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward, allowing for second-year improvements from Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and re-signing leadoff guy Dexter Fowler in spring training.
But Scherzer struck out nine of the first 10 hitters he faced, and by the time the Nationals (40-24) pulled him for a pinch-hitter with a three-run lead and the Cubs loading the bases with an intentional walk in the seventh inning, Maddon admitted: “You could have brought Sandy Koufax in, it might have looked a little bit better at that point.”
The last time the Cubs beat Scherzer, he responded with a 20-strikeout performance against the Detroit Tigers in his next start, matching a big-league record shared by Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson.
The Cubs had blasted four home runs off Scherzer on May 6 at Wrigley Field, part of a four-game sweep that had the Nationals on edge heading into this measuring-stick showdown.
“No, I don’t look at it like that,” said Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who guided the Cubs to within five outs of the 2003 World Series before an epic collapse. “Why do I have to measure against them? They’re the best right now in our league, but I don’t believe in that. I believe in measuring against yourself – how can we get there?
“I approach the series with positive attitude and think about winning and no negatives, because everything that (could have gone) wrong in Chicago for us (did) go wrong. And everything that went right in Chicago went right for them. But you can’t bring it back, so there’s nothing you can do about that. All we can do is go forward.
“You can give them the pennant right now if you want to. It’s up to you. But we still got to play.”
The Cubs know what this feels like on certain nights Jake Arrieta pitches, that air of invincibility warming up and game-over vibe after scoring the first run. Scherzer – who won a Cy Young Award with the Tigers in 2013 and threw two no-hitters for the Nationals last season – didn’t mess around this time.
“He made a pretty good adjustment,” said Miguel Montero, who caught Scherzer with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “At Wrigley, he gave up a lot of hard hits on 0-0 counts trying to get ahead with the fastball, and the guys kind of ambushed him a little bit.
“He pitched a little bit backwards today, and he was able to throw the breaking ball for a strike. When you slow it down – and then you throw the fastball to speed it up – it’s hard to catch up.
“He wanted payback.”
Russell, the No. 8 hitter, ended the perfect game with one out in the sixth inning, driving a Scherzer cutter into the left-field seats at the end of a nine-pitch at-bat for a game-tying homer. But the Cubs really didn’t play their A-game behind Kyle Hendricks (4-6, 3.05 ERA), making two errors and watching Heyward just miss making a spectacular catch at the right-field fence.
The ball bounced out of Heyward’s glove as he threw his body across the Delta advertisement, landing in Washington’s bullpen for a go-ahead Wilson Ramos home run in the sixth inning. Heyward – a three-time Gold Glove winner who expects to make those highlight-reel plays – threw his glove to the ground.
The Cubs struck out 11 times against Scherzer and didn’t draw a walk all night. Anthony Rizzo delivered the only other hit off Scherzer – a double to left-center field with two outs in the seventh inning.
“I’m not even one bit concerned about strikeouts,” Heyward said. “A guy like that makes his pitches, he’s going to be able to rack up some strikeouts. But we did have some decent (at-bats) against him. We made some good swings, and we got to him late.
“I kind of wished he would have stayed in a little longer, (so) we had another chance at him.”
Scherzer is exactly the kind of pitcher the Cubs will face in October, someone who can throw close to 100 mph or kill you softly. It’s up and down, in and out, pinpointing sliders and dropping curveballs, all with a purpose.
“In order to win in the playoffs, you got to beat good pitching,” Montero said. “It’s fine. We beat him one time, he beat us this time. In the playoffs, you see good pitching. That’s why they get to the playoffs, because they got good pitching. The bottom line is you just got to compete.”