WASHINGTON -- One difference between Sunday and Friday for Max Scherzer? His fastball.
Sunday in Atlanta, Scherzer relied heavily on his four-seam fastball, and it sizzled. He topped out at 98 mph -- his fastest since returning from the injured list Aug. 22. Down in the Atlanta heat, his fastball averaged 95.5 mph. Scherzer operated in a sublime environment: 89 degrees at first pitch with progressive warming through the afternoon. He was hot, loose and effective.
Friday in Washington, Scherzer also relied heavily on his four-seam fastball, and it lacked finish. He topped out at 96.5 mph. His average fastball was 94.3 mph. Temperature at first pitch was a breezy 71 degrees and dipped into the high 60s before Scherzer finished his night after five innings and 99 pitches.
The Atlanta lineups for both starts were almost identical. Nick Markakis was the lone personnel change between Sunday and Friday. However, the one shift became a potent alteration. Markakis was 2-for-3. His only out came on a sacrifice fly to deep center which came off his bat at 100.9 mph. Otherwise, those in the lineup were the same, outside of Matt Joyce being bumped down to sixth and Dansby Swanson hitting eighth instead of sixth.
Sunday, Scherzer threw 54 four-seam fastballs against the Braves’ group. They produced six swinging strikes, 12 called strikes, 10 foul balls and seven balls in play. Friday, Scherzer threw 45 four-seam fastballs. They led to just three swinging strikes, five called strikes, 17 foul balls and 10 balls in play. The seven balls in play Sunday averaged 91.3 mph. The 10 in play Friday averaged 97.1 mph.
Why the changes against that pitch?
“Just a culmination of everything,” Scherzer said. “Just being able to execute the pitches where you want to. I feel like the action on every pitch is pretty much where I want it. Just now it's coming down to location. There's little things I think I need to sharpen up mechanically to make sure that happens.”
The foul ball and exit velocity disparity suggest Scherzer’s fastball lacked the final finish to put hitters away or produce weak contact. Could he get away with it against a lesser team? Yes. Against the Braves? No.
“This is a good lineup and they did a good job of just grinding out ABs, fouling pitches off and I was working behind in the count at times,” Scherzer said. “Just not able to locate quite as well and that's something that's got to change and make an improvement upon. Just being able to locate the fastball a little bit better and force their hand a little bit better in the locations I want to.”
Scherzer’s outing dings his Cy Young case less because of the seven hits, three earned runs, two walks and six strikeouts -- which all negatively influenced categories which help his argument. But, more at issue is the outing’s influence on workload, the prime issue running against him. New York’s Jacob deGrom is competitive with Scherzer in multiple advanced statistical categories. He’s also well ahead of him in time spent on the mound this season because of Scherzer’s two back injuries. Scherzer probably has only two starts remaining this year. He won’t reach 180 innings before the regular season closes.
Focus on the Cy Young Award won’t matter until after the season. Scherzer has two more starts -- possibly three -- before the Nationals know their postseason fate, and if his next start will come in October. He expects his fastball to tick back up by then.
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