Max Scherzer conquers Cubs, shows why he's still the Nats' No. 1

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg might be putting up ace numbers, but Max Scherzer is still the Washington Nationals' go-to guy. On Monday night, he showed why.

Facing a Chicago Cubs squad that swept the Nats in Chicago last month and came to D.C. with the best record in baseball, Scherzer was dominant right from the first pitch, leading Washington to a 4-1 win in the series opener.

The 31-year old right-hander has had his shares of ups and downs this season. Against these same Cubs last month, he got tattooed for seven runs on seven hits in five innings, serving up four gopher balls in the process. He rebounded in his next start by tying a major league record with 20 strikeouts against Detroit.

Entering Monday, Scherzer -- who last offseason signed a $210 million contract to be Washington’s ace -- had allowed 16 home runs, most in the National League, and his 3.57 ERA was the second-highest among Washington starters. Meanwhile, Strasburg, who inked a $175 million extension last month, has been the talk of baseball, becoming the first National League starter in more than three decades to begin the season with a 10-0 record.

But Scherzer reminded everyone why he’s at the top of depth chart in D.C. in the first game of the series against Chicago. Scherzer needed no time reaching top speed, relying early on a fastball that can sometimes take a couple innings to get going. For the first time in 47 starts as a National, he struck out the side in the first inning, getting back-to-back punchouts of Jason Heyward and Kris Bryant with a 96 mile-per-hour fastball. Of the eight batters he fanned in the first three frames (the second time he has done that this season), five went down on fastballs, matching Scherzer’s combined total over his previous three starts.

“Tonight, I really felt like I had some good stuff with the fastball,” said Scherzer, who had a perfect game through five innings.

Scherzer whiffed nine of the first 10 batters he faced, becoming just the fifth pitcher in the expansion era to accomplish that (per Elias Sports Bureau research), and was the first to do that since Aaron Harang did it more than four years ago. It was a stark contrast from Scherzer’s last outing against Chicago.

“They got a great lineup and I remember that they beat my brains in last time, and I wanted to come out there and take my shot at them,” he said.

He did that, and then some. By the time he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh (a standing O from the amped crowd of 37,000-plus ensued), Scherzer had struck out 11, allowed just two hits and walked none. If was the 30th time since the start of 2013 that he has tallied double-digit K's, second only to Clayton Kershaw. The fact that he did it against Joe Maddon’s mashers made it all the more impressive. It also served as confirmation that, longballs or no longballs -- he gave up another one to Addison Russell that accounted for the Cubs’ lone run -- Scherzer is still the alpha dog in the District.

“Max kind of flexed his chest tonight and let everybody know that he’s the guy,” said reliever Shawn Kelley, who got the final five outs (four on K's) for his first save of the season. “He was fired up all night, all the way through the seventh inning. It was awesome to watch. Guys like him love the big moments.”

And make no mistake: Even though it’s only mid-June and the Nats have almost 100 more games to play, this wasn’t just any old regular-season matchup.

“I don't want to say it was like a playoff game, but it’s a big series and there was definitely a different energy out there,” Kelley said. “The crowd was electric, and Max went out there and wanted to make a statement -- for us, for himself, for the fans. He did what he's made to do.”