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Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer rarely labors, always works, never disappoints

The Washington Nationals’ veteran right-hander gave an excellent demonstration of his tenacity, developing into “Peak Max” in Tuesday’s start vs. New York Mets.

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets
Max Scherzer struggled early in Tuesday night’s 2-1 victory over the New York Mets. But he built his endurance and precision over the cours eof six inning, finishing a string as ever.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

What could anyone expect of Max Scherzer, just a few days removed from a one-inning appearance against these same New York Mets?

It’s unclear how many would expect him to protect a one-run lead for six innings after struggling to get through the first two. But that’s what Scherzer gave us, along with a look at his evolution during the game: Struggling early, then building strength, honing his command and finishing as strong and sharp as ever.

Trea Turner’s leadoff home run was a welcome gift for a pitcher who blamed a minor hamstring tweak for an appearance that was cut short last week. But the Max Scherzer who took a 1-0 lead out of the gate was not the sharp, intimidating “Peak Max.”

An excuse-me, one-out hit from Jeff Mc Neil was no big deal, but when Michael Conforto pulled a curveball to right field and Scherzer walked Dominic Smith to load the bases with two out, he was officially in trouble. Eight pitches later, Wilson Ramos couldn't pull the trigger on a 97-mph four-seamer, and Scherzer had worked his way out.

Given another run on Victor Robles’s two-out bloop hit that scored Howie Kendrick, Scherzer continued to struggle, allowing another two-out walk to Brandon Nimmo to put runners on first and second. This time, Scherzer summoned the energy he needed in just five pitches, fooling Jeff McNeil with a 92-mph cutter for his fourth strikeout.

For two innings and 60 pitches, we saw Scherzer labor, something that rarely happens. But in this crazy 2020 season, it’s only Scherzer’s fourth start, including that one-inning appearance last week. There’s probably no analogy to a regular season, but it’s clear that Scherzer is at the stage in his progression where he needs to build stamina and command.

“They had great ABs during the game and they were able to grind me,” Scherzer said of his familiar division foes. “I was able just to get some big strikeouts in some key situations.”

While Scherzer rarely labors, he always works, and that was clear when he came out for the third inning and countered a leadoff single with a nifty called strikeout against Michael Conforto and then got his most fortuitous swing of the night, a sharp first-pitch liner to Eric Thames for a too-quick double play.

“He started settling down, he started mixing his pitches up better, but he started getting the ball down in the strike zone and getting some swings and misses,” Martinez said.

“He started throwing his breaking pitches over the plate, which was nice, but like I said, we keep a close eye on him and the one thing for him is you just have to watch his mechanics.”

The Mets were clearly going up swinging in the fourth, and they scratched out a run. Adam Eaton had to chase Andres Gimenez’s carom off the right-field fence, putting Gimenez on third base with one out. Scherzer fell behind Luis Guillorme 3-1, and couldn’t prevent a sacrifice fly for a Mets’ run. But after that, Billy Hamilton went for what looked like a fat pitch and wound up with a harmless fly ball for the third out.

From that point on, Scherzer retired six of the last seven batters he faced, with only J.D. Davis’ two-out, fifth-inning single to center blighting the scorecard. That was the last thing resembling trouble that Scherzer would see, however. In that spot, he revved into another gear, dispatching Conforto with a fastball and two changeups.

“That last inning he came in and said, ‘I still got a lot in the tank,’ “ Martinez said. “And we talked about how many pitches we felt like we could give him, and he finished off right exactly where we wanted him to, 105.”

The pitcher who took the mound for the sixth was “Peak Max,” the sweating, cursing, grunting, unrelenting competitor who “empties the tank.”

“Peak Max” book-ended a 29-pitch first inning with a 12-pitch, 1-2-3 sixth, missing the strike zone only once.

Six hits and two walks over six innings would not stand out on any list of Scherzer stat lines, but when it once appeared as if Scherzer might not qualify for a decision, he clearly crafted his game throughout the appearance and earned the win with a flourish.

His seven strikeouts were key. Three of them came with men on base to end innings.

Scherzer hit the spots and summoned the velocity when he needed it, completing the final four innings on an efficient 45 pitches.

“I was talking after the game with (catcher Kurt Suzuki),” Scherzer said afterward. “I’ve really got to focus on I’m a strikeout pitcher, that’s how I pitch.”

“It’s Max being Max,“ Martinez said. “He’s going to fight through it. That’s who he is.”

An effective bullpen combo of Javy Guerra, Tanner Rainey, and Daniel Hudson shut down the Mets over the last three innings to give Scherzer and the Nats a valuable one-run win.

It’s fun to watch Scherzer develop his game, build his stamina and precision, and round into form as a season progresses. In a COVID-shortened, bizarro season, he can show us that evolution within the course of a game, all the while keeping a division opponent at arm’s length long enough for the win.