- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2019

Max Scherzer loves the flyover. Earlier in the week, the Nationals star pitcher said it’s his favorite part of opening day. And on Thursday, as the F-16s soared overhead past Nationals Park, Scherzer was in the dugout — jumping up and down.

In baseball, the flyover represents one thing: Another season had finally arrived.

Once action finally began, it didn’t disappoint. A high-quality pitching duel was on display Thursday as the Nationals fell 2-0 to the New York Mets. In a battle of the last two Cy Young winners, New York’s Jacob deGrom went toe-to-toe with Scherzer — with each puzzling batters.

“As a player, it’s tough but as a fan, I bet they enjoyed those guys going pitch by pitch,” outfielder Adam Eaton said. “It’s pretty cool to watch.”

Scherzer lives for moments like these. A three-time Cy Young winner, the 34-year-old had been ready for weeks — throwing a bullpen session Monday fully in uniform. As he took the mound against the Mets, he was honed in from the start. He fired off strikes, with the sold-out crowd audibly reacting to each one.



DeGrom was equally prepared. Last year’s National League Cy Young winner entered the season with a streak of allowing three runs or fewer in 29 straight games. That continued against the Nationals — breaking a MLB record.

Together, they combined for 22 strikeouts — becoming the first pair of opposing starting pitchers to fan at least 10 batters on opening day since 1970. Scherzer had 12 strikeouts, while deGrom had 10.

So what was the difference? Costly mistakes.

The Nationals left six men on base and Scherzer gave up a solo shot to Mets infielder Robinson Cano in the first inning.

“He made some good pitches today and just got out of some jams,” Scherzer said of deGrom. “Sometimes you just got to tip your hat.”

If it wasn’t clear already, Scherzer is now the face of the Nationals. He became it the moment Bryce Harper signed a 13-year, $325 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies last month. But it was especially obvious on opening day — with Scherzer receiving the loudest applause when introduced alongside his teammates.

Against the Mets, Harper’s absence was hardly noticeable. His jersey could barely be seen in the sea of red-clad shirts at Washington’s ballpark. One woman, Michelle Westman, dawned a Harper jersey, but said she was wearing more so out of support for the Nationals.

Teenager Cole Fortner had a different approach for his Harper jersey — using ducktape to cover the nameplate, handwriting “SOTO” on top of it, for 20-year-old Juan Soto.

Fortner, who drove three hours from Harrisonburg, Virginia, to attend his first opening day, said he still has respect for Harper, but is moving on. Speaking before the game, he added he hoped to see a battle between deGrom and Scherzer.

He did.

Facing an elite pitcher like deGrom or Scherzer, an at-bat can come down to a single pitch. Eaton, who went 1-for-3, said there’s typically only one hittable pitch at an at-bat against them — if that.

The Nationals recorded five hits against deGrom, and twice had a man on second with no outs, only for them to fail to score.

“If you don’t hit the pitch you’re supposed to hit, I’m sorry game’s over for ya,” Eaton said.

Added Soto: “Every time you go to the plate, every pitch, you’ve got to fight. So that’s one of the tough parts.”

By the eighth inning, with Scherzer on his last legs, manager Dave Martinez came to pull his ace from the mound. The 34-year-old had thrown 109 pitches — 76 strikes — and allowed only two hits.

As he walked back toward the dugout, Scherzer was greeted to a chorus of cheers. He did his job, but for an afternoon, deGrom was just as good.

“You can all see what happens when two Cy Young winners go head to head,” Eaton said. “It’s a heck of a battle.”

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