There was a plan from the start. It being adhered to was the reason it raised questions.
When Max Scherzer, one of the Washington Nationals’ prime commodities, went to the mound for the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night, he brought the labor of 97 pitches and thought that he wanted more. Scherzer had asked before the game started to be “stretched out.” A recent spate of light injuries — stiff neck, comebacker off the calf — had chopped down his workload. The looming playoffs and slowed workload spurred him to want to throw more pitches.
The Nationals executed the plan. They rolled up Scherzer’s pitch count, in part prompting his worst outing of the season when doing so, and showing a lack of flexibility when the plan appeared to be unwinding.
Scherzer had discussed this plan with pitching coach Mike Maddux and manager Dusty Baker. Maddux, for all intents and purposes, runs the pitching staff. He maps out pitch counts, what situation a specific relief pitcher may be used and relays to Baker who is fresh. He arguably has more influence on when to leave a pitcher in or take him out than any pitching coach in Major League Baseball.
Scherzer is 33 years old and tuned into his body. He doesn’t pitch extra to prove things anymore, admitting after various starts this season that he was fatigued and being removed was the right decision. Unlike young, unestablished pitchers, he doesn’t have to show extra might to retain his job or receive a better salary. His value has been determined.
Which brings up the top of the seventh inning Wednesday. Scherzer will have an extra day off before his next start, which meant Wednesday was the time he wanted to push things. Based on the Nationals’ decision to have no one warming up in the bullpen — despite having clinched a playoff spot two days prior and having an expanded roster to work from — it was clear they were going to to fulfill Scherzer’s preference.
“I asked and we thought it would be a good idea to try to get me into 120, 115, 110 pitch count [Wednesday],” Scherzer said. “I thought that would help benefit me going forward and then looking ahead into the postseason, to pitch with some extra fatigue. Usually, I’ve been able to do that in the past. But because of all the little injuries I’ve been dealing with, I haven’t really been able to get past 100 pitches for quite awhile.
“So I knew it was important for me, going into that start [Wednesday], to be able to get to that level. That’s where I showed some rust [Wednesday]. For the first 100 pitches, I felt like I was executing pitches the way I wanted to tonight. Then after pitch 100, that’s when the wheels fell off and I was searching for everything. Sometimes that happens. You can just learn from this. I don’t think anything’s broken. My arm feels fine. There’s nothing wrong here. This is why I needed to pitch that deep into the game, so I can shake off some of that rust and later in the year here, I’m able to be strong all the way through 110 pitches.”
Let’s start with the workload leading up to Wednesday. Scherzer had four starts remaining before the night began. He had thrown 179 pitches in his two prior September starts. Last season, Scherzer threw 626 pitches during five September starts and one October start before the playoffs began. To match that output, he would need to throw 112 pitches per outing before this season closed.
It was also around this time last season when Scherzer maxed out his pitch count down the stretch. He threw 117 pitches Sept. 10 before progressively dialing down his total as the playoffs approached. If he was going to backtrack as the calendar moved this season, matching his pitches thrown from his final six appearances last season would be difficult.
Wednesday, he walked the first batter of the seventh inning to put his pitch count at 102. Then, walked the second better to up it to 109.
Here, the plan hit an obstacle. By waiting to start warming up a pitcher after the first batter was walked, the Nationals were forced into being rigid with their pregame plan. Maddux came to the mound.
The optics were bad, at that point. Scherzer had thrown seven balls and five strikes. In part, this was what he was after. He wanted to wade into quicksand to see how he would respond. It was clear he was responding poorly. His rare location problems and pitch count would suggest that he was fatigued, which, studies have shown, is a time when the frequency of injuries go up. But, he told Maddux he felt good.
“I was honest and saying ‘Hey, I feel strong right now,’” Scherzer said. “I felt like I could execute pitches and get guys out. The curveball backed up on me, and I wasn’t able to execute two more changeups after that. That’s the reason I walked that guy. But if you’re asking me if I still felt strong after two walks, I did. I still felt like if I had to, I could easily have faced Matt Kemp. But I understand the situation in a game. But from a physical standpoint, that’s what I felt. I still had those bullets left in my arm. Hey, it’s not fun. I’ve always said you learn more about yourself after pitch 100 than you do in the first 100. Well, this is time to learn.”
Scherzer walked the next batter, rookie Ozzie Albies, on five pitches while the bullpen scrambled. Left-handed Sammy Solis had been warming up and appeared to have enough time to be ready for Albies, though Baker said afterward he was slated to face left-handed Nationals tormentor Freddie Freeman. Now, right-handed Brandon Kintzler joined Solis in the bullpen.
Up next was right-handed Dansby Swanson. Scherzer was at 114 pitches, the most he had thrown since Aug. 7. Swanson hit a 1-0, 85-mph slider to left while Kintzler warmed in the bullpen. Left fielder Howie Kendrick made his second fielding mistake of the evening when he threw all the way home instead of hitting the cutoff man. Swanson went to second on the throw. That opened first base and brought Freeman up. The Nationals chose to intentionally walk him. Scherzer, at 116 pitches, was done. Scherzer gave up five of the six seventh-inning runs in an 8-2 loss.
“Like I said, that was the game plan before the night started,” Baker said. “I know it looked ugly. It looked ugly to you. It looked ugly to us and the fans and everybody else. But if you have a game plan, you want to stick with it as much and as long as you can.”
The effects of the night were multiple. Scherzer’s preference of a higher pitch count was fulfilled. If he averages 100 pitches in his final three outings, he will hit 495 pitches for September. He threw 530 last September. So, he would be around two innings of work short of that total.
Baker was again second-guessed for leaving a starting pitcher on the mound for an extended period. It’s a reputation he will never shake.
Last, the decision could cost Scherzer a second consecutive Cy Young Award. Kintzler replaced Scherzer and allowed a first-pitch grand slam to Kemp. That bloated Scherzer’s line to seven earned runs allowed. His ERA has gone from 2.19 to 2.59 in his last two starts. He is now tied with Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw in WHIP. Scherzer has a significant lead in batting average against. Kershaw has a strong lead in ERA (2.12). Scherzer has a large lead in strikeouts and innings pitched. Kershaw has a significantly better strikeout-to-walk ratio and their OPS against is almost even (.585 for Kershaw, .577 for Scherzer).
The Nationals locked into their pregame plan and pushed through it. It, as Baker said, was not attractive to watch, plus the results were poor and dinged Scherzer’s candidacy for the ultimate pitching award. He, however, accomplished what he wanted and emphasized how strong he feels last in the season.
“This is why these games are meaningful,” Scherzer said. “I know [the media keeps] throwing that word around. I needed to go out [Wednesday] and pitch deep into this ballgame. And I did.”