- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

NEW YORK — There it was again. This time, it only took one pitch.

Curtis Granderson hit Max Scherzer’s first pitch on Tuesday night past the right field fence. It was a first for Scherzer. He had never allowed a home run on the first pitch of a start in the major leagues.

For almost a week, there was wonder about how Scherzer would pitch following his record-tying 20-strikeout performance on May 11. He joked before the Washington Nationals traveled to face the New York Mets that he was glad an extra day of rest was built into the schedule. He had thrown 119 pitches in pursuit of the strikeout record. Only twice last season did he meet or exceed that total.

So, the first-pitch home run was viewed a forebearer of bad news. Instead, it became one of just three hits allowed by Scherzer in the Nationals’ 2-0 loss to the Mets.

“Kind had a feeling he was going to swing, but usually guys will pop it up or get a base hit,” Scherzer said.

One of the other hits was, naturally, a home run, continuing Scherzer’s run of often allowing home runs. It began after the all-star break last season and has not subsided.

“Wanted to try to execute a cutter,” Scherzer said of the home run by Michael Conforto. “Really didn’t cut. Kind of sank right into his swing path. Left it right there for him to blast and he did. One of those pitches where the idea’s right. The execution was poor.”

The two home runs — both by left-handed hitters — were the 12th and 13th allowed by Scherzer this season and vaulted him back to the top of MLB’s home runs allowed list. He’s keeping strange company there. None of the others in the top five have his pedigree. More strange, none have the peripheral numbers that Scherzer carries this season.

Look at the other names: Chris Young of the Kansas City Royals, who has allowed a bevy of home runs during his career and was recently placed on the 15-day disabled list. Chase Anderson of the Milwaukee Brewers, who, like Young, was previously prone to allowing home runs. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Jon Niese and the Cleveland Indians’ Cody Anderson are right behind those two.

Scherzer’s numbers, outside being among the league leaders in home runs allowed, suggest a dominant pitcher. His WHIP is 1.15, which is below his career average. His .228 batting average against is .001 behind the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and equivalent to that of the San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner. He’s second in the league in strikeouts, trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, who is the second coming of Sandy Koufax.

Young’s WHIP is 1.52 in almost half the innings Scherzer has pitched. Chase Anderson’s ERA is 5.32. Batters are hitting .295 against Niese and a stunning .359 against Cody Anderson. These are the people Scherzer is listed among, prompting the question: How can someone with such good stuff so often receive the maximum damage when a mistake occurs?

When Scherzer is hit hard this season, it’s often at the hands of left-handed batters. That was the case Tuesday night. Both Granderson and Conforto hit from that side. Granderson reached base four times in four plate appearances.
The early season splits are ugly. Left-handers have hit eight of the 13 home runs allowed by Scherzer this season. They are hitting .308 with a Bryce Harper-esque 1.034 OPS. Right-handers are kicking dirt with a .469 OPS.

Scherzer began to work a cutter into his repertoire last year specifically to counter left-handed hitters. He wanted it to be a “power slider,” something he threw a couple miles an hour harder than the slider and with more action toward the hitter. It’s the pitch Conforto hit into the stands.

“I’ve got to evolve,” Scherzer said. “I just got to find ways to get better and find ways to get them out. I’m more frustrated about the walks than necessarily the home runs. The walks are definitely something that will keep me up at night thinking about how I need to attack hitters better. The two home runs [Tuesday], first pitch of the game and poorly executed pitch. I can live with that. The walks I can’t.”

Scherzer’s performance, in all, was often plenty to win. Had the three hits he allowed been two singles and a double, and that was the root of his two runs, the tenor around his season would be different. But, the home runs fit in with a multiple months trend back to last season.

“It’s the first pitch of the game; I’m not going to beat myself up over that,” Scherzer said. “Just kind of what happened. The other one, I made a mistake, he got it. If my mindset was wrong or if I didn’t think the sequence was right, that’s where, I hold myself accountable and you start questioning what am I doing out there. When it just comes down to execution, it’s just execution. You’ve got to execute every time you throw a pitch.”

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