WASHINGTON - Wednesday was supposed to be Max Scherzer's turn in the Washington Nationals' rotation. Instead, manager Matt Williams announced on Tuesday that Scherzer’s start would be pushed back to Friday.
It wasn’t a health issue, at least not an individual health issue. No, this was about the health of the team. It was about well being of a Nationals squad that’s currently 10 games out of the second NL wild card and knows that its only chance of making the playoffs is to overtake the big, bad New York Mets.
“I know that we have an opportunity when we face that team,” said Williams, who then acknowledged that the next Mets series from Sept. 7-9 only matters if the Nationals can take care of business between now and then. “There’s a lot of games in between that we have to win to have that opportunity.”
After taking the series opener against San Diego on Tuesday behind another stellar pitching performance by Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals fell 6-5 to the Padres on Wednesday. Combined with another Mets win over the Phillies, the loss -- in which starter Gio Gonzalez lasted just 4 2/3 innings and allowed five runs on seven hits -- dropped the Nationals to 6.5 games back in the division, their largest deficit since April 28, with just 37 games left to play.
The purpose of juggling the rotation was to make sure that Scherzer, who will face the Marlins on Friday, would then be in position to pitch against the NL Central-leading Cardinals in his following start and, more importantly, the aforementioned Mets in the one after that.
On the surface, the move makes sense. The Nationals, who have six games remaining against New York, know that for them to have any chance of catching the Mets, they’ll need to win most, if not all, of those six games. In theory, lining up Scherzer to face them increases Washington’s odds of achieving that. After all, Scherzer is the staff ace -- the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner who signed a seven-year, $210-million contract with the Nationals during the offseason and threw a no-hitter in June. If you’re Williams, there’s no way you let the Mets not face Scherzer. Not again.
In each of the last two series between New York and Washington, Scherzer didn’t pitch. That includes the most recent three-game showdown in Queens where the Mets swept the Nats, elbowing their way into first place in the process. Meanwhile, New York manager Terry Collins had his rotation dialed in so that the big three of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard all took the hill against Washington. While Scherzer has only faced the Mets in two of the four series between the NL East rivals this season, the Nationals have drawn both Harvey and deGrom in all four series.
So if you’re Williams, it’s a no-brainer. You have no choice but to line up your top dogs to face the NL East’s top dogs. But given Wednesday’s loss and Gonzalez’s relative ineffectiveness, you can’t help but get the sense that pushing Scherzer back feels a little bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Then again, there’s no guarantee that the Nats -- who were down 6-1 Wednesday but pulled to within one during a seventh-inning rally that fizzled when Yunel Escobar swung at a 3-0 pitch with the based loaded and grounded into an inning-ending double play -- would’ve fared any better with Scherzer on the hill.
In four starts this month, Scherzer is 0-2 with a 6.86 ERA. After posting a sub-one WHIP in each of the first four months of the season, his WHIP in August is 1.62. He’s not the only Washington hurler that’s struggled recently. Gonzalez has failed to last more than five innings in six of his last seven outings. Rookie Joe Ross, who was lights out earlier this season, hasn’t made it past the fifth in two of his last three starts. Jordan Zimmermann has allowed eight earned runs in 11 2/3 innings over his last two turns. Add it all up, and since Aug. 1, Nationals starters not named Strasburg are a combined 6-14 with a 5.24 ERA, a key reason why the club has won just nine of 23 games this month.
If that trend continues, it won’t matter who pitches against the Mets in September.