- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2015

Menace was delivered in different forms Sunday. “Star Wars Day” at Nationals Park populated the field and stands with Stormtroopers and members of the “dark side,” though those intergalactic enforcers were not more diabolical than the 6-foot, 195-pound right-hander on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zack Greinke is creeping to historical dominance. His eight shutout innings pushed him to 43 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. The outing put a final touch on an odd weekend that opened the second half of the season. Light outages, suspended games and plastic lightsaber-wielding mascots were part of a series that went to the Dodgers after Sunday’s 5-0 victory over the Washington Nationals.

Clayton Kershaw’s eight scoreless innings on Saturday were matched by Greinke a day later. The overlords of the Dodgers‘ rotation showed the Nationals what could be coming in the playoffs. Kershaw set a season high with 14 strikeouts. Greinke set his own high on Sunday when he struck out 11 batters against a lineup the Nationals never envisioned would be sweating together in the heat of mid-July.

Greinke talks little, yet had a substantive message for catcher A.J. Ellis midway through the game. Yasmani Grandal, the Dodgers‘ starting catcher, left after a foul ball smacked him in the chin in the bottom of the sixth inning. Ellis replaced him, quickly warmed, and told Greinke to take it from there.

“I kind of went out there after the first out and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to follow your lead here,’” Ellis said. “He said, ‘It’s pretty easy, all my stuff’s pretty nasty right now.’ So, we kind of just went from there, and he was right.”

Ominous for the Nationals is how the series with the National League West-leading Dodgers felt like a repeat of last season’s playoffs. Washington was locked down in the NLDS by the San Francisco Giants, hitting just .164 with a .579 OPS during another rapid postseason exit. Over the weekend, Greinke and Kershaw allowed six hits in 16 innings. They struck out 52.1 percent of the batters they faced. A Nationals rotation projected to dominate the league could not compete.

Even Max Scherzer could not keep pace. He allowed a run and seven hits in six innings on Sunday. Often trying to unchain himself from problems, Scherzer finally made a fourth-inning mistake that dragged in a Dodgers run. He pulled a cutter that clanged past catcher Wilson Ramos. Andre Ethier scored from third.
“I thought I did pitch well,” Scherzer said. “Giving up only one run is good, but good is not good enough when you’re going up against Greinke and what he’s doing right now.”

Though half of the weekend’s starters — Kershaw, Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann — had thrown no-hitters, Friday and Saturday were undercards to Sunday’s horn-locking between Scherzer and Greinke. Greinke leads the National League in ERA. His scoreless innings streak is being observed as it grows by the man who holds the record. Orel Hershiser did not allow a run in for 59 innings in 1988. He’s now part of the Dodgers‘ announcing team, watching Greinke track him down, suddenly just 15 1/3 innings away from one of the game’s rarely threatened records.

“It’s hard to be better than this, right?” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.

Electronic, verbal and physical evidence argued Greinke received help. Typically stoic Michael A. Taylor doubled over after being called out on strikes. Major League Baseball’s pitch tracker showed the called third strike against Taylor was above the interior white line of the batter’s box.

Bryce Harper was in a helmet- and bat-tossing mood early in the game after unsuccessful at-bats. After words for home plate umpire Adrian Johnson on Saturday, Harper had more for Bill Miller on Sunday. Harper went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts and a walk against Kershaw and Greinke. That hollow line was enough to stoke his frustration by the series’ end.

“When you’re getting five to six inches off the plate, you better win the game,” Harper said of Sunday’s strike zone.

He wasn’t done. Harper was asked how tough an at-bat was against Greinke.
“To me, I don’t think he was very tough,” Harper said. “He’s a great pitcher. He does what he does. But, I mean, you’re getting six inches off the plate, it’s pretty tough to face him.”

Taylor’s third-inning single was the first Greinke allowed in 28 batters. Scherzer plugged along, shaking free of a laborious first inning when three batters reached. After six innings, he left for a pinch hitter to close his first start since the all-star break. The game’s tension was undone by Blake Treinen’s ninth-inning effort. He allowed four runs.

Witnessing Greinke’s mastery were moms who acquiesced, clamping fake buns of hair to the side of their heads to satisfy their kids. Stormtroopers roamed the emphatically hot field. If there was a day not to be enclosed from head to foot in order to pose as a movie character, it was Sunday. The temperature was 93 degrees at first pitch. R2-D2 can coolers handed out to the first 25,000 in attendance were a timely tool for a heat index noted at 107 degrees.

Oddities flooded the steamy weekend. Friday night’s bizarre and repeated light outage led to the suspension of the game and was trumped in rarity by a Matt den Dekker home run to win it the next day. Sent to the batter’s box in the eighth inning on Saturday afternoon, den Dekker hit the first pinch-hit home run of his truncated career. It was his third home run in three seasons.

Kershaw and Greinke followed with their asphyxiation of the Nationals‘ lineup. Friday night, and in the completion of the suspended game Saturday, Harper was navigated with intentional walks. Feeling unthreatened by Harper’s support, the Dodgers were happy to avoid him for a game. They stared him down after.

The second-place New York Mets arrive in Washington on Monday with their forceful rotation. A trip to Pittsburgh follows. The Nationals know there will be no sympathy for the costumed or uniformed.

“Same goes,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “[Monday’s] a new day.”

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