Max Scherzer's solid return means Nats can relax (for now)

WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer reported to work wearing a "Mitch-A-Palooza" T-shirt. Then, fittingly, he went "Old School" on the Miami Marlins.

For the first time since his rookie season in 2008, Scherzer relieved in a regular-season game. OK, so technically he didn’t pitch in relief. But with a strong start in the Washington Nationals' 3-2 win over Miami on Monday night, he provided his club with plenty of relief.

Six days ago, facing the same Marlins squad, Scherzer exited after just one inning with neck stiffness. It was a shocking turn of events for a workhorse who has been as durable as any hurler in baseball. Since coming to D.C. prior to the 2015 season, the 33-year-old righty leads the National League in starts (90) and has thrown more innings (610) than anyone in the majors. On top of that, No. 2 starter Stephen Strasburg already is on the disabled list with an injury that has sidelined him longer than expected and has folks in the District concerned about whether he can be counted on come October.

Even though Scherzer downplayed his injury after his abbreviated outing, you could hardly forgive Nats fans for holding their breath. After all, massive division lead or not, the odds of the first-place Nationals posting their first-ever playoff series win without the reigning Cy Young winner would be roughly equivalent to the odds of dress socks staying where they’re supposed to instead of slipping down to your ankles every time. But if Monday’s outing was any indication, Scherzer’s just fine, thanks.

Although he didn’t dominate Miami quite like he did back in June, when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning, Washington’s ace looked stout from the start on a misty evening in D.C. Not long after the grounds crew removed the new Skittles-sponsored, rainbow-colored tarp from the field, Scherzer set down the side 1-2-3 in the top of the first, throwing 10 of 13 pitches for strikes and recording a pair of punchouts. After holding Miami scoreless through four frames, he seemed to tire in the middle innings, allowing an RBI single to pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne in the fifth followed by a towering solo shot to Giancarlo Stanton in the sixth that tied the game at 2-2.

With two outs in the seventh, he issued a four-pitch walk to Ichiro Suzuki that ran his pitch count to 111 and resulted in a visit from pitching coach Mike Maddux. Even though left-hander Oliver Perez was ready in the bullpen to face lefty hitter Dee Gordon, skipper Dusty Baker decided to leave his ace in to finish the job. And Scherzer obliged, fanning Gordon on three pitches to end the inning.

Despite not earning the win -- reliever Brandon Kintzler did, thanks to Adam Lind’s pinch-hit RBI single in the eighth -- Scherzer earned plenty of kudos from the guys in his clubhouse.

“He went out there with all the confidence in the world to pitch a game,” said Bryce Harper, whose clubbed his 150th career homer, making him just the 14th player in MLB history with 150 jacks before his 25th birthday. “If he can do that, then we're all good."

Added Baker: “He gave us all he had.”

As if throwing 114 pitches wasn’t enough, Scherzer -- who allowed five hits and struck out nine -- chipped in at the plate, too. He lined a single to center in his first at-bat, then worked the count full in his next trip to the plate before flying out. With the 1-for-2 performance, he’s now hitting .429 over his past eight starts. For all that he did on the mound, it was his work with the stick that spoke volumes about his health.

“I saw him in the cage at like 4:30 today,” Lind said. “Swinging like that, I figured he was fine.”

For what it’s worth, Scherzer himself had no doubt that he’d be ready to roll.

“We were really close to getting it fixed up for that start,” Scherzer said of last week’s one-inning outing in Miami. “Just wasn't able to quite get it in time. I just knew that we needed to get some work on it.”

Having his regular turn pushed back from Sunday to Monday gave him an extra 24 hours to get right.

“I knew I was going to have six days to completely fix it," he said. "Got it snapped by a chiropractor, and it went away.”

And with it went Washington’s worst fears.