A little-to-celebrate weekend ended with two positives: Monday is an off-day, and Max Scherzer is back.
The Nationals, finally, figured out a formula to stall Atlanta for a day during a 9-4 win. They beat the Braves’ best starting pitcher, Mike Soroka, ended their four-game losing streak, as well as Atlanta’s nine-game winning streak. The win changed nothing about the postseason future. Atlanta is going to handily win the division. The Nationals have a prime chance at a wild-card spot. Their main concern is hosting the game in order to have an opportunity to deal with Los Angeles in the division series.
Getting there -- the wild-card spot -- became more likely Sunday. Scherzer owned the Braves for six innings. He struck out nine, allowed two hits -- one a solo home run from Matt Joyce -- and threw his fastball an average of 95.5 mph. He hit 97.5 mph. And, he knew that was his ticket Sunday when he threw a four-seam fastball 55 percent of the time, producing 13 swinging strikes on 54 pitches. He’s re-established himself.
The concern for Scherzer was how he felt while ticking upward. His steady progression has run as hoped: 71 pitches in Pittsburgh, 89 pitches against Baltimore, 90 pitches against the New York Mets, 98 and seemingly set for more Sunday against Atlanta. His results have come along with the increase in pitches. Sunday was by far his best outing since returning from a rhomboid muscle strain.
Scherzer’s management of Freddie Freeman indicated his sharpness Sunday. Freeman entered the game with 34 at-bats against Scherzer and held him to a .206 career average. Not great, but also never easy for either. At the All-Star Game in Cleveland, the pair participated in a mutual lovefest.
“If he throws a ball to you, you know he’s setting you up for something else,” Freeman told NBC Sports Washington. “That’s the hardest thing.”
“He’s as difficult a hitter as I have to face in the league, and he makes me better because of that,” Scherzer said.
And such a large sample makes their exchanges that much more compelling and difficult to manage. Scherzer threw Freeman 10 pitches Sunday, seven strikes. He started his three at-bats in three different ways: first-pitch fastball, first-pitch changeup, first-pitcher cutter. In all, Scherzer threw Freeman six fastballs, three changeups and one cutter. They led to three outs.
Where Scherzer wasn’t as sharp was against left-handed Matt Joyce. A cutter strategized to be in under his hands course-corrected into the middle of the plate. Joyce hit it for a solo home run. Joyce also doubled. He was the only Atlanta hitter to record a hit.
Scherzer’s next outing will again be against Atlanta. He should make four more starts this season and won’t hit 200 innings pitched for the first time since 2012. However, he remains extremely competitive in the National League Cy Young race. His batting average against, walk-to-strikeout ratio, WHIP, WAR, FIP and ERA-plus are all in front of Los Angeles’ Hyun-Jin Ryu, who appears to be losing steam out West. No matter if Scherzer wins the award -- he seems a lock to be a finalist along with Jacob deGrom -- the Nationals at least know now he looks like the guy who annually competes for it. In an otherwise failing week, that’s a piece of good news.
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