Max Scherzer has a clear preference when it comes to what his offense does behind him. He’ll take runs of any form. But if the Washington Nationals pitcher had to choose, he likes the ball jumping out of the yard when there are runners on base, putting up big numbers on the scoreboard immediately and giving him ample cushion on the mound.
“I don’t care about your solo shots,” Scherzer said. “I want your two-run shots.”
In Washington’s 5-1 win Sunday against the Miami Marlins, Trea Turner and Josh Bell obliged their pitcher’s wish, turning what had been, up until the top of the sixth inning, a pitcher’s duel into a game defined by the long ball — with Turner and Bell jumpstarting a Nationals offense that had cooled off the past two days in losses.
First, Turner watched as his 400-foot bomb cleared the wall in right-center field. And two batters later, Bell could skip out of the batter’s box and take his time rounding the bases, another two-run homer giving Washington all the firepower it needed to secure a four-game series split against the Miami Marlins.
“When they’re two-run shots, that makes me happy,” Scherzer said. “I love whipping on our guys when they all want to celebrate their solo shots, but I get real excited when they hit their two- and three-run shots, because I know that’s usually when you win a ball game.”
Those blasts were what separated Washington and Miami on Sunday, with the Nationals jumping on Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara in the sixth. Alcantara had entered the game sporting a 2.93 ERA, and he overcame a first-inning run to keep the Nationals off-balance until Turner and Bell erupted.
The clutch hitting and six innings of one-run pitching by Scherzer had Washington got back on track after two losses to the Marlins.
Sunday’s win was the Nationals’ 11th in their last 14. But the path from here to the All-Star break is daunting, with the New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants all on the schedule. That gantlet could show a lot about Washington, though, shaping the way this season plays out.
“This is what you play for. You want to play the best teams in the game,” Scherzer said. “We have a stretch here where we’re playing a bunch of really good teams across the league. We’ve got to take care of business. This is what you find out about yourself, when you start playing the best.”
The Nationals worked their way back to .500 with a win Thursday against the Marlins, reaching that even record for the first time since May 2 through a stretch of 10 wins in 11 games. During that span, the hitting — which had been so off-kilter — and the equally inconsistent pitching finally clicked at the same time.
They conceded three runs or fewer in nine of those 11 games, and while Washington is averaging 3.9 runs per game — the third-fewest in the majors — the clubs scored five or more in seven contests. But after hitting .500 again, the Nationals ran into familiar issues in Friday’s and Saturday’s losses.
Jon Lester lasted just 2 1/3 innings Friday, allowing seven runs. And Patrick Corbin struggled early before settling in, giving up three runs. He wasn’t helped, though. Washington could only scratch across two runs, dropping consecutive games for the first time in 18 days.
And Sunday morning, the Nationals received another blow. Erick Fedde was placed on the 10-day injured list, further slimming Washington’s starting pitching depth with Stephen Strasburg still working back from nerve irritation in his neck. Strasburg threw a bullpen Sunday, his first since his injury occurred at the start of June, but his return date is still unknown.
That leaves questions regarding what the Nationals will do Monday, when the National League East-leading New York Mets come to Washington for a single game. Fedde was supposed to start. Now, Nationals manager Dave Martinez said Monday will likely be a bullpen day. Recently promoted Andres Machado, Jefry Rodriquez and Paolo Espino could all provide length.
But a six-inning, 102-pitch outing from Scherzer helped save the bullpen arms for that matchup with the Mets. He allowed five hits and one run, striking out seven and walking two. Scherzer ran into trouble in the first, allowing a leadoff triple to Jazz Chisholm Jr. before Jesus Aguilar’s double drove him home.
Scherzer settled in, though, working around runners on base in the second and fourth. He walked two in the sixth, but Scherzer struck out Jorge Alfaro with a slider in the dirt and punched out Jon Berti with an elevated fastball to finish his outing.
“Max did well,” Martinez said. “We got some clutch hits, some big home runs for us today. So everything went well. Nice to get on a plane heading back home with a W.”
Josh Harrison got the offense started in the first inning, driving home Kyle Schwarber with a single before Aguilar tied the game in the bottom half of the frame. From there, Alcantara danced around baserunners until the sixth, when he walked Schwarber on four pitches to set up Turner’s homer. After Juan Soto singled, it was Bell’s turn to elevate a drive out of the park.
Those two blasts, and a clean performance from the bullpen, sealed the series split. But the road gets tougher from here, with a formidable stretch of opponents. If anything, the Nationals should learn if their recent winning ways are emblematic of where they’ll end up or if the recent form is a blip before a summer selloff.
“Whoever we’re playing, it is what it is, but we’ve got to focus on us,” Turner said. “When we play our best, that’s what we do.”