- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2016

Clayton Kershaw has not pitched in a major league game since June 26, which is the lone reason there can be a debate about who will win the National League Cy Young award.

Kershaw’s dominance was staggering before a herniated disc in his back did National League hitters a favor. Kershaw went on the disabled list before the all-star break, stifling what was perhaps going to be his greatest season. Before he was hurt, his ERA was 1.79. He struck out 145 and walked nine. Even by the standards of someone who has not finished outside of the top three in Cy Young voting for the last five seasons, winning three times, the results were laughable.

He’ll be back Friday, so good luck everyone. In the interim, the National League Cy Young race has become a multi-candidate dogpile with the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer in the middle, not that he’s paying attention.

“That’s for [reporters],” Scherzer said. “You guys write and talk about that. My job is to go out there and pitch every five days. I go out there and give everything I got. The results take care of themselves. If I focus on the result, you forget about the process. It’s all about what you do preparing and going out there with the right mindset.”

The key factors of Scherzer’s case lay in volume. He leads the league in innings pitched and strikeouts with up to five starts remaining this season. Scherzer has also allowed 26 home runs. Should he win the award and not allow another home run this season, he would be the first National League pitcher to win when allowing 26 or more home runs since Randy Johnson in 2002. For Scherzer, the “yeah, but” is always rooted in the home runs.

He did not allow one Monday during what, by his standards, was only a solid performance. Scherzer threw seven innings in the Nationals’ 6-4 win against an Atlanta Braves lineup that entered the game 29th in runs scored in MLB, but was intimately familiar with him. Scherzer started his outing with a six-pitch first inning. He finished it with a surprise appearance in the seventh, which he started despite having thrown 99 pitches already. Scherzer’s final line: seven innings pitched, seven hits, two runs, two walks, five strikeouts.

The walks will make him grumpy more than the runs. Both were given to Anthony Recker, the Braves catcher who hits sixth. In the season-plus Scherzer has been part of the Nationals, nothing has eaten at him like walks. They are rare, particularly for a pitcher who throws his fastball 95 mph and lasts for so many innings. Last season, Scherzer walked just 1.3 per nine innings. Coming into Monday, that number was up to 2.1. Scherzer is on pace to make his command the last two seasons his best and second best, respectively, since entering the major leagues in 2008.

That control boosts Scherzer’s Cy Young argument. He’s second in the National League in strikeout-to-walk ratio, trailing only the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard. Both are well ahead of Cincinnati’s Mike Leake, who will only be mentioned in a Cy Young discussion when this particular category is being assessed. San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, Scherzer’s prime but not only competition at this point, is fifth. Scherzer is also first in WHIP and second in batting average against.

Chicago has two candidates on the edge: Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks drove his league-leading ERA down to 2.07 in yet another Cubs win Monday. He also leads the league in ERA-plus, which accounts for a player’s ballpark. But, he has pitched just 159 innings and struck out 139, trailing Scherzer by more than 100. Arrieta leads the league in hits allowed per nine innings and batting average against. His demerits come from a walk total, 67, that is already a career high. Opponents hit just .150 against Arrieta in August.

Deciding the award could well come down to the final handful of starts for Scherzer and Bumgarner. The San Francisco lefty is in the top five in six key categories. He’s well ahead of Scherzer in ERA (2.51 to 2.88), but trails him in WHIP, innings pitched, strikeouts and batting average against and WAR.

Parsing all these numbers only makes clear that Scherzer is anchored in the mix for this season’s NL Cy Young award. He has a month to go firmly wrap his hands around it.

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