Max Scherzer's departure Tuesday night marked the high point of the game for the Phillies: leading 3-0 heading to the sixth inning, having teed off for homers in back-to-back frames, and with Aaron Nola still packing a few more innings in his arm.
The 34-year-old righthander lasted just five innings, allowing five hits and three runs. He entered the contest averaging 12.7 strikeouts and 0.92 homers per nine innings, but struck out only five and allowed two dingers: a solo shot in the fourth by Odubel Hererra and a two-run blast by Jorge Alfaro in the fifth.
Not too many times in Scherzer's long, dominant pitching career have opposing teams gotten to him but still lost the game. Over the last two seasons, the Nationals had been 1-5 in Scherzer starts that lasted five innings or less. Alas, that was the Phillies' ugly fate Tuesday night, ruining not only Nola's start but also their impressive effort against Washington's own Cy Young candidate.
Scherzer struggled to keep his pitch count down from the start — the Phillies are, after all, one of the top teams in the NL all season in pitches seen per plate appearance, as manager Gabe Kapler loves to mention — and eventually threw 99 pitches in his five innings.
"When you think about throwing five innings, 100 pitches, you think about spraying it, walking guys and everything," Scherzer said. "I didn't walk anybody. They just kept battling me and fouling pitches off and grinding ABs out, and sometimes you've got to tip your hat."
The Phillies fouled off 27 pitches from the Nationals ace, equal to the total of called and swinging strikes combined that he produced. It took him 17 pitches to get through a 1-2-3 first inning, and by the time Herrera homered with one out in the fourth, Scherzer was already on 65 pitches despite having conceded only one prior base hit.
With the No. 9 batter's slot up to start the sixth inning, Nationals manager Dave Martinez decided to end Scherzer's night right then, concluding his shortest start since April 4 in Atlanta.
"He struggled. He threw a lot of pitches early," Martinez said. "I didn't want him throwing too many pitches … and we had a chance to lead off with a pinch hitter. But he gives us everything he's got every day and that's what I expect from him."
Herrera continued to be a rare but especially prickly thorn in Scherzer's side. After deciding last week's Nola-Scherzer battle in Washington with a two-run homer, the Phillies outfielder worked an eight-pitch at-bat in the second inning before lining out, then blasted a 2-2 fastball (after having fouled off the prior two pitches) into the right-field stands in the fourth.
That improved Herrera's career numbers against Scherzer to .341/.426/.610 in 47 plate appearances, a remarkable slash line considering Scherzer's career numbers against stand at a measly .222/.282/.372. It's a disparity Scherzer is well aware of, as well.
"He's really put me through the screws of trying to figure out what I need to do to consistently get him out," Scherzer said. "He can hit a lot of different pitches, up and down, in and out. … There's ways I know I can pitch him and ways I know I can get him out; I just know that there's such a fine line in what I have to do to have success against him. The moment I make a mistake, it seems like he always gets a hit."
The Phillies' surprisingly effective night at the plate was ultimately rendered pointless by yet another late collapse, however, pulling Scherzer and his Nationals, rebuilding and all, within 3 1/2 games of Philadelphia in the standings. For all his uncharacteristic inefficiencies earlier the night, that reality alone made it a happy postgame for the five-time All Star.