The Mets had already lost in extra innings to the Pirates, cracking open the window ever so slightly for the Nationals to gain a game back in the standings. Max Scherzer was on the mound in San Francisco, handed a 1-0 lead before he ever took the mound. And the Nats would wind up adding four more runs in the fifth inning, including a gargantuan blast from Bryce Harper that felt like it had the potential to be a major momentum swing for this ballclub.
So how did all that turn into yet another squandered opportunity by the Nationals late Friday night, an 8-5 loss to the Giants that simply can be added to the list of head-scratching losses suffered by this team over the last 2-plus weeks?
It starts with the man on the mound, the ace who was supposed to rise to the occasion when his team needed him most but instead fell flat with his worst performance of the season.
Scherzer was given a 1-0 lead when he toed the rubber for the bottom of the first. By the time he walked back to the dugout at the end of the inning, he trailed 2-1, just as Stephen Strasburg did the previous night.
Except unlike Strasburg, who on Thursday kept the deficit at 2-1 and wound up battling his way to a quality start, Scherzer only poured more gasoline on the fire the longer he stayed out there. He surrendered four more runs in the bottom of the second via four doubles and a hit batter. Then, after manager Matt Williams gave him one last shot at a clean inning before ending his night, Scherzer served up a third-inning homer to Hunter Pence that made it 6-1 San Francisco.
This was a nightmare start for Scherzer, who couldn't command his fastball at all, leaving a bunch right over the heart of the plate. But it also didn't come out of nowhere.
Over his first 16 starts this season, which included the most-electric stretch of pitching in Nats history, Scherzer gave up a total of 24 earned runs. His ERA at that point was 1.82, his WHIP of 0.78 was challenging all-time records and he was striking out nearly 10 batters for every walk he issued.
Well, over his last eight starts, Scherzer has now given up 26 earned runs. His ERA during this stretch is 5.05, his WHIP a pedestrian 1.21.
What happened to the $210 million ace, the guy who had positioned himself as the early season Cy Young Award favorite? Did he burn himself out too soon with all those 8-plus-inning starts in June and early July? Can he not handle the workload down the stretch? Or is he simply dealing with a rough patch, just like basically everybody else on the roster?
The shame of Scherzer's clunker is that his teammates were putting together a rally that sure seemed to have some potential for staying power. They manufactured a run in the top of the first on a walk, stolen base and two sacrifices. Then they got that huge blast from Harper, who took a flailing Matt Cain into the deepest part of AT&T Park to bring his team to within a run at 6-5 in the fifth inning.
That was Harper's long-awaited 30th homer of the season, putting him in some exclusive company. He's the sixth player in Nationals history to hit 30 in a season, finally crossing the threshold in Game No. 115. (For comparison's sake, Alfonso Soriano did it in only 95 games in 2006 en route to his club record, 46-homer campaign.) Harper is the 37th player in history with a 30-homer season before his 23rd birthday, the first left-handed hitter that young to do it since Boog Powell in 1964.
The good vibes from Harper's homer, though, didn't last long. In keeping with a recurring theme, the Nationals bullpen was unable to keep the deficit at 1 run. Matt Thornton gave up the all-important insurance run in the sixth via a double, a hit batter and then a sharp grounder to first that left Ryan Zimmerman hesitating oh-so-slightly and thus unable to throw out the lead runner at the plate.
Add the extra run allowed by Jonathan Papelbon in the bottom of the eighth inning, and the Nationals bullpen has now been scored upon in 12 of its last 15 games. Yes, protecting a lead is important. So is maintaining a tie game into the late innings. But sometimes keeping a deficit to one run can make all the difference in the world. The Nats' relief corps hasn't exactly performed well in this department.
Then came some poor at-bats late when the Nationals were trying to mount a last-ditch rally against the Giants bullpen. Anthony Rendon, out of the lineup but called upon to pinch-hit in the eighth, put forth the kind of at-bat we rarely (if ever) saw from him last season. Facing San Francisco veteran right-hander Sergio Romo, Rendon struck out, not even coming close to making contact.
And so you end up with an 8-5 loss. There were several positive developments along the way, some of them wiped out by various events on the field.
In the end, though, this one falls on Max Scherzer's shoulders. Give an ace a run before he takes the mound and five total runs of support in the game, and you expect a quality pitching performance.
Scherzer didn't come close to pulling that off Friday night, and so the Nationals find themselves right where they started Friday morning: 4 1/2 games back in the NL East, owners of a 4-11 record over the last 15 days, not to mention a 58-57 overall record that surely can't intimidate any potential opponent at this point.