On April 6, 2015, Max Scherzer took the mound at Nationals Park and began his seven-year tenure with the Washington Nationals with the type of performance that’s come to define his time in the nation’s capital: a dominant, 97-pitch outing in which he retired 17 straight batters at one point.
Scherzer was saddled with the loss, even though he gave up no earned runs. A hit following an error led to two unearned runs for the New York Mets, spoiling an otherwise standout beginning to Scherzer’s Washington career.
In the grand scheme of a 162-game season, opening day doesn’t mean much. A win or loss doesn’t count any more than the plethora of midsummer nights ahead. But opening day does carry a certain extra emotional weight, and Scherzer has often handled that responsibility.
When Scherzer walks to the mound Thursday night against the Mets once more, it will be his sixth opening day start for the Nationals in seven seasons. The time has flown by since the big-time free agent signed a $210 million deal to come to Washington. And Thursday could be his final opening day appearance for the Nationals, depending on contract negotiations.
“I think you sign a seven-year deal like that’s forever,” Scherzer said last month. “But it’s gone by pretty quick, and here we are.”
Looking back at Scherzer’s previous five opening day starts for Washington, luck hasn’t always been on his side. In his 2015 start, two errors from shortstop Ian Desmond led to three unearned runs, and the Nationals’ bats were largely quiet.
The next year, in a 10-inning win against the Atlanta Braves, Scherzer impressed once more despite earning a no-decision. In his seven innings, he allowed just three hits — yet two of them were home runs.
That has been a trend for Scherzer, in opening days and his seasons at large. The propensity to allow the longball has marred several starts that otherwise were gems. In his 13-year career, he averages one home run per nine innings.
Take 2017, for example. He didn’t receive the opening day start that year as he battled a knuckle injury. Scherzer earned his second consecutive Cy Young award, leading the majors with just 5.7 hits allowed per nine innings. But on average, one of those 5.7 hits was a homer.
And in his five opening day appearances in Washington, the 36-year-old has given up four dingers — two in 2016, one in 2019 and another last year.
Still, at the very least, Scherzer keeps his team in the ballgame. When he returned to his place as opening day starter in 2018, he struck out 10 Cincinnati Reds batters over six innings of a 2-0 win. That was Scherzer’s only opening day win with Washington.
Jacob deGrom won a pitcher’s duel in 2019 — and Thursday will be a rematch of those two aces on the bump for opening day. In that 2-0 loss, Scherzer struck out 12 batters while allowing two hits.
And last year, a rain-shortened contest ended in a 4-1 Yankees win. He gave up four runs, six hits and four walks while striking out 11 batters in 5 1/3 innings. Those struggles may have been an early indication to Scherzer’s down season, in which he finished with a 3.74 ERA and allowed 1.381 walks and hits per inning — the highest mark of his career.
But the Nationals believe that blip won’t become Scherzer’s standard. Thursday night might give an early indication of where he is, even if it’s just one early season start.
“He’s the guy that gets everything started for us,” manager Dave Martinez said. “He competes. We know what we’re going to get from him. He loves opening day, so he’s the guy we’re going to follow opening day.”
Scherzer closed out spring training by holding opposing batters to a .180 average while allowing a 0.88 WHIP. He made some minor tweaks to his mechanics this offseason after studying his 2020 performance, and he felt his slider got to where he needs it during his last outing of the spring. He’s not the same pitcher he was when Washington signed him in January 2015; there’s more nuance to his approach now, an evolution that involves more off-speed pitches (Scherzer used his fastball 46% of the time in 2020, the lowest usage of his career).
As he enters the final year of his contract, Scherzer will be on the mound as the table-setter for another Nationals season, with all thoughts about what might come next pushed from his mind.
“Honestly, I don’t know, I’m pretty good about tuning all this crap out,” Scherzer said. “For me, it’s just show up to the park and win. Come in and do your job and all the contract stuff takes care of itself.”