In the category of “What have you done for me lately?” the generous answer regarding Nationals ace Max Scherzer is, “Not nearly enough.”
The more blunt assessment is: “You haven’t done squat.”
Scherzer was signed to a massive free-agent contract for situations exactly like Monday afternoon, a figurative-if-not-literal playoff game. The Nats had altered their rotation to put him in line for the series opener against the first-place New York Mets, ensuring that their No. 1 starter had the ball in arguably the team’s most important game to date.
These are the spots that give aces their bonafides, spots laden with intense pressure, power hitters and postseason implications. Scherzer was spared the extra burden of facing the opponent’s best, as the visitors sent No. 4 starter Jonathon Niese – owner of an 8-10 record and 4.17 ERA – to the mound.
Four games behind in the NL East race at the series’ outset, the Nats had a chance to be one or three games back when the series concludes. (They also could be five or seven games back, but no one wants to consider that scenario.) Washington was primed to slice the deficit but Scherzer wasn;t sharp in an 8-5 loss at Nationals Park.
“I’m just making mistakes in the zone,” Scherzer said after recording his fourth no-decision against three losses in his last seven outings. Teams have capitalized on his mistakes by blasting 11 homers during that span, including three by the Mets on Monday.
“I’m leaving the ball thigh-high instead of getting the ball to the knees,” he said. “That’s something that’s been symptomatic in the second half. I have to get the ball back down to knee level. That’s what’s going to keep me up late tonight, figuring out how I’m going to do that.”
Along with the homers, Scherzer gave up four doubles before he exited after six innings. He also gave up the lead that Wilson Ramos provided with a grand slam and Jayson Werth padded with an RBI double in the Nats’ five-run fourth inning.
Having fallen behind 3-0 on solo shots by Michael Conforto, Kelly Johnson and Yoenis Cespedes, Scherzer had the perfect opportunity to settle down and guide Washington to its sixth consecutive win. But he promptly gave up runs in the fifth and sixth innings, leaving with the score tied.
“I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to hold that lead,” he said. “That’s something I take pride in when the offense wakes up and responds. I take pride in putting up those zeroes and being able to turn it over to the bullpen. It’s extremely frustrating for me that I wasn’t able to do that.”
Imagine how owner Ted Lerman must feel after signing off on Scherzer’s $210 million contract. The ace is trending in the wrong direction, going from great to good to so-so as the season has progressed.
Monday’s loss wasn’t the nail in the coffin but New York has the hammer in hand. With 25 games remaining, the next two are virtually must-win contests if Washington is to have a reasonable chance of chasing down the Mets.
The series opener felt a little like the playoffs; losing two-of-three would make October baseball a long shot, even with the regular season’s final three games against the Mets in New York.
“I’ll say that today was a playoff atmosphere,” Scherzer said. “It’s September and this is the playoff chase. We have to come with the approach that we have to win every day, especially at this point of the year.”
Right fielder Bryce Harper wouldn’t go quite as far in comparing the game to what he’s experienced in the postseason. For one thing, he noted, there was a mass exodus of fans after the seventh inning. He also expressed his supreme confidence in Scherzer’s ability to deliver over his final starts, including in the Mets series at Citi Field.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” Harper said. “I believe in his stuff and what he does out there and how he goes about it. You want a guy who competes every single game he throws and works his tail off. That’s all you can ask for from one of the best guys on your staff.”
So we stand corrected.
In the category of what Scherzer has done lately, the answer is “competed” and “worked his tail off.”
Unfortunately for all parties involved, he needs to do more than that.