By the time he was done for the afternoon in his start against the New York Mets, Max Scherzer was up to 14 home runs allowed in 58 second-half innings pitched (2.17 HR/9) after the 31-year-old Nationals' starter gave up 10 HRs over 132 innings (0.68 HR/9) in the first half of his first season with Washington after signing a 7-year/$210M deal this winter.
Scherzer's struggles keeping the ball in the yard continued in today's 8-5 loss to the current NL East leaders.
He gave up five runs total on six hits, three of them solo home runs, one each by Michael Conforto, Kelly Johnson and Yoenis Cespedes.
Conforto and Johnson hit home runs in the top of the second as the Mets jumped out to a 2-0 lead, and Cespedes took Scherzer deep in the fourth putting New York up 3-0 before the Nationals rallied and knocked Jon Niese out with a five-run fourth inning.
Back-to-back doubles off Scherzer by Ruben Tejada and Curtis Granderson made it a 5-4 game in the Nats' favor but Washington threatened to extend that lead in the bottom of the fifth when Yunel Escobar and Ian Desmond hit back-to-back singles to start the frame.
Two outs later, however, both runners were still out there when Scherzer's spot in the order came around.
He was up to 89 pitches at that point, having given up six hits and four earned runs, but Nationals' manager Matt Williams decided to stick with the right-hander, who sent a hard-hit grounder to second to end the threat.
Cespedes doubled to center to start the sixth on Scherzer's 93rd pitch of the game, moved up to third on a balk one out later and scored on a sac fly by Travis d'Arnaud, whose fly to left tied the game up at 5-5.
Scherzer was done after the sixth. Williams was asked after the loss about the decision to let Scherzer hit in the fifth.
"He's our best option in the sixth inning," Williams said. "He's got pitches left. Again, we want to make sure that we're getting it to the eighth. He's at 90 and he's got the lead, he's our no.1 for a reason."
Williams explained that he was hoping Scherzer could get them through at least one more inning.
"Had a righty starting it off and Cespedes led off with the double and then the balk and then the sac fly," the second-year skipper explained, "but he's our best option in the sixth. He's our horse going out there."
Scherzer left with the game tied, but the Mets broke it open in the seventh.
Wilmer Flores singled to start the inning, but was forced out at second on a bunt attempt when Blake Treinen made a risky, aggressive throw to cut Flores down.
Felipe Rivero came on in relief, but gave New York the runner in scoring position they'd just lost when he walked fellow lefty Curtis Granderson.
Casey Janssen took over with David Wright due up and gave up an RBI single to center that put the Mets ahead.
Daniel Murphy hit a sac fly off Matt Thornton and Cespedes doubled again to bring Wright in and make it 8-5 NY.
Williams was asked if he could point to any particular point at which things went south in the seventh.
"Felipe's at bat to Granderson," he said. "If [Rivero] gets Granderson we'd let him go through and get to [Murphy], but since he walked him, the base hit there they end up taking the lead."
Going back to Scherzer, Williams talked about the increased number of home runs he's allowed recently, which he said were tied to the right-hander's struggles with his command.
"I just think that fastball command is important for him," Williams said.
"I haven't had a chance to look at the video yet, look at the tape of it yet, but seems as if the ball to-- the Cespedes' homer -- was a little bit up in the zone, but we'll just have to look at it."
It's not just home runs either, a reporter noted, but hard-hit balls in general, more balls in the air and doubles.
"Again, I haven't seen today's footage," Williams said, "but when he does get in trouble, the ball is more lateral as opposed to having down movement."
And the fact that Scherzer was falling behind in counts more? Was it just a command issue, or approach?
"I don't think it's a different approach," he said.
"I just think if you don't have the great feel for it, then you try to do other things. I think that fastball command is important and that ball down and away to the righty, he hasn't been quite getting it there."
Scherzer received no decision, so he remained (11-11) on the year, but his ERA creeped up over 3.00 (to 3.03) for the first time this season, and the Nationals' loss left them 5.0 games out of first in the NL East with five games left against the Mets this season.