SAN DIEGO – After a chaotic and gut-wrenching loss Friday night, what the Nationals needed tonight more than anything else was a nice, clean game with no reason for panic.
What they needed was a no-nonsense Max Scherzer start.
And that’s what they got, riding their ace’s seven scoreless innings and some timely early hits to a 4-1 victory over the Padres that very briefly felt in danger of falling apart in the ninth until Sean Doolittle took care of business and locked it down.
Scherzer played the starring role, scattering six singles across his seven innings, striking out nine and reducing his ERA to 2.83. But he had a nice supporting cast as well, from Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier and Anthony Rendon delivering run-scoring hits, to Tanner Rainey blowing away the heart of San Diego’s lineup in the eighth.
Doolittle was forced to enter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth after Wander Suero allowed an RBI single to end the shutout bid. But the closer, who blew the save during Friday night’s debacle, retired rookie sensation Fernando Tatis Jr. on one pitch to earn the save this time.
“One-pitch save, that’s pretty awesome,” manager Davey Martinez said. “A testament to him. He came up earlier and told me that he was good to go today. It worked out perfect.”
So a Nationals club that was still stinging from back-to-back losses bounced back with a much-needed win, its 10th in its last 14 games.
Scherzer cruised through a 1-2-3 top of the first, striking out both Greg Garcia and Wil Myers, but he wouldn’t have another clean frame until the seventh. He did, however, have plenty of scoreless frames along the way.
Though he gave up six singles, Scherzer scattered them around. And the lone walk he issued was intentional, loading the bases with two outs for the opposing pitcher (who he promptly struck out).
This was Scherzer not necessarily at his very best but rather at his no-nonsense best. He didn’t make every single pitch, but he made all the pitches he needed to make to be effective.
He spent most of the night dealing with a sore calf, thanks to a second-inning comebacker via Josh Naylor.
“I’ve been hit in the calf before,” Scherzer said. “I know it sucks. You’ve just got to see if it tightens up on you. We have some ways to kind of treat it in between innings, just try to compress it and keep it from getting worse. I felt like I could go back out there and pitch and still get through it. It didn’t feel good to run, but I was still able to pitch. That’s when you just get rid of all the excuses of why you might fail and come up with reasons why you want to win.”
Scherzer also pitched the entire game with a lead, thanks to his teammates plating a quick run in the top of the first and then adding on multiple times after that.
Kendrick’s latest clutch hit – he’s now got 38 RBIs in 167 plate appearances while batting .400 with runners in scoring position – made it 1-0 in the first. Dozier’s two-run blast into the second deck made it 3-0 in the fourth and represented a milestone for the veteran second baseman.
It was Dozier’s 1,000th career hit, and it also kept his ever-growing hot streak alive and well. After surviving his traditionally sluggish April and early May, he’s now batting .350 with five homers, six doubles and 16 RBIs over his last 20 games, helping provide some much needed depth to the Nationals lineup.
“Just the big thing is getting rid of bad habits I created last year,” said Dozier, who played through a knee injury and wound up batting .215 for the Twins and Dodgers. “I finally feel comfortable and back to my old self.”
Rendon’s RBI single to center in the fifth extended the lead to 4-0 and allowed Scherzer to pitch with a bit more level of comfort. He struck out four-of-six batters during a stretch in the fifth and sixth. Then he retired the side in the seventh and walked off the mound to a line of awaiting handshakes in the visitors’ dugout, his evening over after 101 pitches.
“Nothing really fazes him,” Dozier said of Scherzer. “He’s a competitor. If he’s able to go, he’s going to go. And he don’t ever want to be out of the game. He always wants the ball. I knew that from afar. Now that I’m his teammate, he never lets up. He’s Mad Max to the end. There’s no other guy I want on the mound besides him.”
With a four-run lead, Martinez entrusted the eighth inning to Rainey, and the hard-throwing righty offered up his latest in a string of impressive outings that has earned him the right to keep pitching in high-leverage spots. Rainey retired the heart of the Padres order, striking out both Myers and Eric Hosmer, lowering his ERA to 1.80 and giving himself 17 strikeouts in 10 innings with the big league club this season.
“The first time I brought him in and gave him the ball, he had a look and a presence about him that I really, really liked,” Martinez said. “And since then, he’s been great. He gets it. He understands. … So far, I love what I see out of him. He’s poised. What he’s trying to do, how he’s attacking hitters. Everything’s been really good.”