Friday night, after another struggle by the bullpen and a comeback and blown save, the Nationals managed to walk-off the Marlins in the tenth on Jose Lobaton‘s sacrifice fly. It was a brief bright spot in what seems an inevitable trip into postseason disqualification for the Nationals, a moment of joy before the darkness of the offseason comes a month too early.
Yet the most intriguing part of the Nationals win didn’t happen in extra innings. It happened in the top of the seventh, when Matt Williams walked out to the mound, and Max Scherzer, with a few four-letter words, sent him back to the dugout.
Max Scherzer, the ace, was back.
Early in the season, Scherzer, the prized free agent signing of the Washington Nationals, looked like he meant to earn every single dollar of his $215 million contract in the first season. His numbers were beyond belief. Through the month of June, he held an ERA of 1.79 (it had been 1.51 after May), and if his 9-5 record seemed unimpressive, it was more a product of his run support than anything else.
The early returns seemed to indicate that the investment in Scherzer was well-founded, that Scherzer was exactly what the Nationals had paid for: a true ace. At one point, Scherzer’s starts felt disappointing if he didn’t at least flirt with a no-hitter or a perfect game for the first five innings. Max was larger than life, in a way, a sailor-mouthed leader and a Hershey’s syrup gunslinger all rolled into one.
In July, that version of Max Scherzer vanished.
It’s impossible to know, really, what exactly happened, whether it was a mechanical issue or something psychological or something else. But whatever the cause, Scherzer was not the same pitcher once the seventh month of the year rolled around. In his 14 starts since the start of July, Scherzer pitched five innings or fewer in three of them after going at least six in all of his starts from April, May and June.
Probably the worst part of Scherzer’s slide occurred two starts ago. In a game that the Nationals desperately needed against the Mets, Scherzer came out flat. He surrendered five runs over just six innings, including three home runs. The Nationals went on to lose that game, and the series, in a manner that sucked every ounce of wind out of Washington’s playoff sails. When the Nationals needed Scherzer to be a true ace, he failed them.
That isn’t to say that the debacle that’s been 2015 lay entirely at Scherzer’s feet. No, Max sits pretty far down the list of guilty parties. But Scherzer wasn’t completely blameless either. When the Nationals started their slide into the NL East oblivion, they needed their ace to stop the bleeding. Instead, they got bizarro Scherzer, a pitcher who gave up the long ball far too often and couldn’t seem to get his team back into the win column. His last start, a 5-0 win in which Scherzer pitched eight scoreless innings, was his first victory in over a month.
Which brings us to Friday night.
Early on, Scherzer looked like he was in danger of falling back into the same issues that plagued the second half of his season. Christian Yelich‘s home run put the Nationals in an early 2-0 hole, and fans had to wonder if more fireworks were to come.
But from there, Scherzer buckled down. He wasn’t perfect by any means. He walked three hitters for the game and managed to strike out six. When it came to where it counted, though, Scherzer was perfect. Whatever jams he got himself into, he worked out of. Inning in, inning out, until the bottom of the sixth rolled around.
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Scherzer had already managed to record two outs, but there was a problem. Miguel Rojas stood on second after a one-out double. He was in scoring position, which meant a hit in almost any form would score him, and put the Nationals in a 3-2 hole.
Matt Williams climbed out of the bullpen, stalked to the mound, and in some way, shape, or form, asked his pitcher if he had anything left in the tank.
Scherzer didn’t bother hiding his answer behind his glove. He wasn’t trying to keep secrets. You could read his lips without even bothering with a replay.
"“I [expletive] want it!” Scherzer screamed. “I [expletive] want it!”"
Matt Williams nodded, turned around, and stalked back to the dugout. Scherzer got what he wanted – the final out of the seventh – and then followed him.
That moment is almost certain to make the highlight reel, but as more of a humorous footnote than anything significant. More attention will go to the subsequent events of the night: the rally, the bullpen meltdowns, and the extra-inning heroics from Lobaton. But the truth is that Nats fans should find more excitement in that moment than in the walk-off win that will likely mean little in the grand scheme of things.
Because when Scherzer demanded the ball from Matt Williams, he was reaffirming his status. He showed how badly he wants to live up to his contract, and how he wants nothing more than to be the ace that Washington is paying him to be.
It isn’t just the last out of the seventh that Scherzer wants. He wants to lead this team to the a World Series, even if it has to wait until next year.