There aren’t many pitchers who can singlehandedly swing a pennant race … but Max Scherzer is one of them.
We all have our preferences. Maybe you’re a Chris Sale guy or perhaps Justin Verlander is more your cup of tea (although you could argue the latter isn’t even the best pitcher on his own team). But if my life depended on one pitcher for one game only, I’m giving the ball to Mad Max 10 times out of 10. When the stakes are highest, you need someone a little crazy, the kind of intense nut-job you have to literally drag off the mound. That’s Scherzer to a T. He’s a different breed, continuing to soak up innings in the era of five-and-done while scaring the bejesus out of opponents (and probably some of his own teammates, if they’re being honest) with his unhinged demeanor and iconic mismatched eyes.
The three-time Cy Young winner has been predictably lights out this year (2.41 ERA, 12.49 K/9), but with one major caveat—he’s only made 21 starts. A bloodied face and broken nose couldn’t stop Scherzer from throttling the Phillies earlier this year, but apparently back pain is his kryptonite (join the club, Max). Scherzer has long been one of the league’s most durable arms—he’s reached 200 innings in each of his last six seasons—which is why his prolonged absence this summer has felt so bizarre. These are uncharted waters for the right-hander, who returned briefly last month but was shelved again shortly after. Luckily Scherzer’s hiatus didn’t sink the Nats’ playoff hopes, though the prospect of playing out the stretch run without him would have been as terrifying as one of his primal screams.
Rather than wading into the shallow end of the pool, the likely Hall of Famer went straight for the high dive, eschewing a minor-league rehab assignment in favor of starting Thursday night’s game in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t vintage Scherzer—not that he needed to be against a Pirates club peering through binoculars to see the rest of the NL Central pulling away from them. But Thursday’s showing in the Steel City still went a long way toward calming the collective nerves of Nats’ fans, many still skeptical of Scherzer following last month’s setback. The 12-year vet mixed in his usual array of pitches (fastball, slider, changeup) while flummoxing the Bucs over four sturdy innings, surrendering his lone run on a third-inning solo blast served up to second baseman Adam Frazier. Scherzer likely had more in the tank but the Nationals didn’t need to bleed him dry in his first start back, opting to pull the plug after a conservative 71 pitches. The 35-year-old ace, whose fastball topped out at a healthy 96 mph, even provided some offense, chipping in with a base hit off Pirates hurler Steven Brault. Scherzer only registered three punch-outs, but those will come. He just needed to get one under his belt.
“I feel pretty good,” Scherzer remarked after the game. “This is a good start, but I’m not out of the woods.” Neither are the Nats, who haven’t been able to pull away from the pack in a tight NL Wild Card race. They hold a 1.5-game edge over the Cardinals and are three games clear of the division-rival Mets, but those deficits can both be erased quickly. And, not to put the cart before the horse, but their rest-of-season schedule isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Sure they have a few freebies coming up against the Orioles (the Marlins won’t be a challenging assignment either), but the Braves, Cubs, Mets and Phillies still stand in their line of fire. They also have a pair of tough interleague tilts awaiting them with the feisty Indians and Twins both on tap next month. However it plays out, one thing’s for certain—the NL Wild Card will be earned, not given.
Scherzer is the face of the franchise, a mantle he took upon himself following Bryce Harper’s free-agent defection to Philadelphia. But if Washington lives to see October baseball, it will be because of the contributions the Nationals received while their best player was stuck watching in street clothes. Fellow rotation arms Stephen Strasburg (NL-leading 15 victories) and Patrick Corbin (3.17 ERA, 10.24 K/9) have both kept the place from burning down while perennially underappreciated third baseman Anthony Rendon has continued to work his magic, just as he did again Thursday night. The future free agent (he’ll hit the market this winter) lent a helping hand in the victory over Pittsburgh, supplying two hits including his team-leading 28th homer. His solo blast to left field was no cheapie either, traveling 432 feet before finally succumbing to the laws of gravity. A dugout dance party ensued in celebration of Rendon’s career-high 101st RBI, an output he reached with 35 games still remaining. The 29-year-old probably won’t receive much MVP consideration with Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger emerging as the clear frontrunners for that particular piece of hardware. But if this keeps up, Rendon and his monster .324/.402/.613 batting line will be laughing all the way to the bank … literally.
Washington’s bullpen contingent was also on its game Thursday night, blanking the Pirates over five innings of three-hit ball. Holding leads has been a source of frustration all year for the Nationals, including last week when closer Sean Doolittle fell all the way apart against Milwaukee (an IL trip followed with Washington choosing “right knee tendinitis” as the culprit). The Nats are still putting out their share of late-inning fires—only Orioles relievers have posted a worse ERA this season. But they’re working on it and the additions of Hunter Strickland (who earned the win Thursday night), Daniel Hudson and Roenis Elias, each acquired at the trade deadline, should help.
With Scherzer, Rendon and others leading the charge, the Nationals have to like their postseason chances. But so do the Phillies, Mets and Cardinals and only two can get in. Buckle up—September is going to be a wild ride.
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AL Quick Hits: Luis Severino can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. The embattled right-hander could be nearing a return to game action after working a simulated appearance on Thursday. The plan is for him to throw a longer simulated game in five days before potentially setting out on a minor-league rehab stint in 10 days. Severino, who has spent the year battling shoulder and lat injuries, is hoping to join the Yankees for the stretch run in September … Brandon Lowe will miss the remainder of 2019 after suffering a strained quad during a minor-league rehab assignment on Wednesday. Lowe, who was already on the injured list with a bruised shin, earned an All-Star invite this summer on the strength of a .276/.339/.523 batting line with 16 homers and 49 RBI. Had he managed to stay healthy, the 25-year-old would have been the frontrunner for American League Rookie of the Year … Chris Davis remained a spectator Thursday, logging his fourth straight absence as the Orioles fell to Tampa Bay. The first baseman has been benched for nine of the last 14 games with no end in sight according to manager Brandon Hyde, who plans to give some of Baltimore’s younger players an opportunity down the stretch … Mark Trumbo hopes to begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Norfolk on August 27. The former AL home run champ has yet to see the field this year while recovering from knee surgery … The Angels are shutting down Griffin Canning, who was placed on the injured list with elbow inflammation earlier this week (an MRI confirmed his diagnosis). Canning shined as a rookie, compiling an impressive 9.57 K/9 over 18 appearances (17 starts) for the Halos … The Astros were dealt another injury blow Thursday with the loss of All-Star reliever Ryan Pressly, who is headed for arthroscopic surgery on his injured right knee. The right-hander is looking at a 4-6 week absence … Eloy Jimenez was scratched from Thursday’s starting lineup, sitting out with a sore right hip as the White Sox rolled to a 6-1 victory over Texas. The 22-year-old leads American League rookies with 22 homers this season … Jimenez’s teammate, Yoan Moncada, made a splash in his return to the lineup Thursday, contributing a double and a home run in his first game action since July 30. His strained hamstring required a 22-game absence … The Red Sox needed just 12 minutes to dispose of KC Thursday at Fenway Park, beating the Royals on a 10th-inning, walk-off single by Brock Holt. They were finishing a game that began on August 7 but was interrupted by rain.
NL Quick Hits: Jeff McNeil began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Syracuse on Thursday. He was slated to play 5-7 innings in the outfield but only made it through one as the game was suspended due to rain in Lehigh Valley. McNeil leads the National League in batting average at .332 and also ranks among the top ten in on base percentage (.400), slugging (.529) and OPS (.929) … The Pirates parted ways with Francisco Cervelli on Thursday, ending the catcher’s five-year run in Pittsburgh. He’s expected to join the Braves as soon as his release becomes official … Marcus Stroman anticipates making his next start Tuesday against Chicago. The Mets ace bowed out of Wednesday’s start with hamstring tightness but all his tests came back clean including an MRI, which ruled out any structural damage. He’s posted a 4.58 ERA in four starts since coming over from the Jays at last month’s trade deadline … Dansby Swanson is on the comeback trail and could join the Braves during their six-game road trip, which begins on Friday. Swanson, who is currently rehabbing with Low-A Rome, hasn’t suited up for Atlanta since injuring his foot in late July … Jon Gray has opted for season-ending surgery on his broken left foot. The Rockies hurler will go under the knife Friday … MLB players will not be permitted to participate in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason. This stems from President Donald Trump’s embargo of Venezuela, which took effect earlier this year.