At the end of a night in which his starting pitcher tossed eight brilliant innings, recorded a key base hit and scored the eventual game-winning run, Matt Williams summed up Max Scherzer in six words.
“He loves to play the game,” the Nationals manager said.
Why wouldn’t Scherzer be having the time of his life right now? Secure for life with the richest contract ever given a free-agent pitcher. Sporting a 1.67 ERA heading into Memorial Day weekend. Leading the best rotation in baseball on the best team in baseball over the last 3-plus weeks.
And when it all comes together for the right-hander like it did during Friday night’s 2-1 victory over the Phillies, his true value to the Nationals becomes obvious.
“He’s got one of the best mentalities out there on the bump,” said Bryce Harper, who (ho-hum) hit his 11th homer in 14 games. “He’s always fighting, always scratching and trying to do what he can do to help this team win, if that’s in the box or if that’s on the mound. He’s unbelievable out there, and it’s fun to watch. I mean truly, it’s a blast to be behind.”
The Scherzer who starred Friday night was exactly the guy Mike Rizzo envisioned when he handed him $210 million in January, not only an elite pitcher but a guy who takes complete control of a ballgame and never lets it go.
On the mound, Scherzer tossed eight innings of 1-run ball, eschewing a couple of early, well-struck balls that didn’t prove too damaging — thanks in part to Denard Span’s range in center field — and then cruising late. He allowed only four hits and a walk, putting two men on base in the same inning only once along the way.
And in pitching as deep into the game as he did, Scherzer continued to set the standard for a staff workhorse. He has now gone at least seven innings in each of his last seven starts. Only Livan Hernandez (eight straight such starts in 2005) owns a longer streak in club history.
“You can give your bullpen some rest and just go out there and compete as long as you can,” Scherzer said. “That’s why I love being a starting pitcher and I love going out there and giving you everything I got. When I can go deep into a game, it helps the ballclub even more, and that’s something I take pride in.”
Scherzer may not have earned his fifth win of the season, though, if not for his exploits at the plate and then on the bases. He led off the bottom of the sixth with a single to right, his fourth hit in 21 at-bats, which ain’t too shabby for a former AL pitcher, despite the modesty he displays in public.
“I realize what I am,” he said with a smile. “I have slider bat-speed. Slider bat-speed cheating the heater.”
There was no cheating, though, moments later when Scherzer put his legs to the test. When Ian Desmond launched a drive to deep center field, Scherzer ran nearly all the way to second base, then turned on the jets once he realized the ball would carom off the wall. He kept going around third, and despite a bit of a stumble, composed himself well enough to score standing up as the crowd of 35,893 roared with approval.
“We would just as soon him not have to score from first every time he pitches,” Williams said. “But again, he made a good read, got all the way to second base, slowed down in case the ball was caught and didn’t pass second base. And once the ball kicked off the wall, he’s able to score. So, good baserunning from Max that allowed us to get the second run.”
It didn’t happen by accident. Scherzer actually had been working on that type of scenario recently with Desmond and first base coach Tony Tarasco.
“It’s funny,” Desmond said. “The other day we were out at second base during BP, and he was talking to me about baserunning, getting reads off the bat, stuff like that. It’s little things like that that make him special, that make him the competitor that he is.”
“Just watching balls, try to get the right reads,” Scherzer said. “Especially when you’re on second base, that’s where all the reads come into play. Just the little things like that, that you have to pay attention to, because stuff like that can help you win the game when you make the right read to run the bases. It can help me, it can help the rest of the team and the other guys do a great job of that as well.”
Right now, Scherzer is doing a whole lot of things that help the Nationals. And they couldn’t be happier to have him.
MORE NATIONALS: Nats 2, Phillies 1: Harper homers, Scherzer dominates