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August 30, 2016

Scherzer flirts with perfect game, no-hitter as Nats beat Phils

The Washington Nationals are marching toward September, when they will clinch the National League East, with Stephen Strasburg, the first piece of the foundation of their current nucleus, on the disabled list.

If the Nationals hope to advance to a league championship series for the first time in 35 years, back when the organization was located in Canada, having a healthy and confident Strasburg would seem to be beneficial. But the Washington front office did a pretty smart thing two winters ago when they eased the burden on Strasburg by signing that free agent class’s premier starter to place ahead of Strasburg in the rotation.

All Max Scherzer did in his first year in a Washington Nationals uniform last year was throw two no-hitters, tie a major league record with 20 strikeouts in a game, sport a career-best 2.79 ERA in 33 starts, and strike out 276 batters in 228 2/3 innings.

Oh, and he manhandled the Phillies in his first year with Washington, too: 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in four starts and a Kershaw-ish 30-to-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 30 innings.

On the same day Phillies manager Pete Mackanin was asked to bemoan the individual progress of his mostly underperforming young hitters for the umpteenth time, and one night removed from getting shut out by Tanner Roark and company, those hitters were scheduled to face Scherzer.

The Phillies offense, which entered the game with a major league-worst .297 OBP, had to try to solve Scherzer.

The Phillies offense, which had been held to two runs or fewer in more than a third of their games (45 of 131), had to try to scratch out a few runs in support of Jerad Eickhoff.

Predictably, Scherzer flirted with a perfect game for five innings and took a no-hitter into the sixth.

Freddy Galvis broke up the no-hit bid by jumping on a high 0-2 fastball and ripping it into right field for his team-best 23rd double of the season. Ryan Howard, 1-for-20 with 13 strikeouts in his career against Scherzer entering the seventh inning, ripped a two-run home run off the Nats ace to bring the Phils within striking distance.

But Scherzer brushed aside those two pesky hits and helped Washington nail down a 3-2 win over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night.

"That’s Scherzer, man," Howard said. "I mean, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game for a reason. He’s got basically four-plus pitches that he can throw anytime in any count, throw them for strikes and he does a great job of keeping hitters off balance, mixing it up really, really well. 

"He’s kind of got a pit bull’s mentality on the mound just going out there wanting to shove it to the other team. He had it going tonight."

Scherzer, who held the Phils to two runs on three hits while striking out 11 in eight innings, improved to 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA in eight starts against the Phillies since signing with Washington before last season. Scherzer has a 70-to-11 strikeout-to-walk rate in 59 innings over that two-season stretch.

Eickhoff, who had won three straight decisions in August, and helped the Phillies win each of his four starts in the month, ran into trouble in the first inning, just as fellow right-hander Jake Thompson had a night earlier. After recording the first two outs, Eickhoff gave up a cue shot of a double to Daniel Murphy

"There's no reason that ball Murphy hit should have been a double," Cameron Rupp said. "Eickhoff, he executes the pitch, and – bad luck. What are you going to do?"

A booming Bryce Harper double to center followed, and then a walk, and then a base hit. And suddenly, a two-out, nobody-on situation turned into a 2-0 deficit while sharing the mound with Scherzer.

"I know he's a tough pitcher so I know I've got to be on point with my stuff as well and try to keep our guys getting into the dugout and get the bats," said Eickhoff, who held Washington to one run on one hit in the next five innings. "He pitched a great game. You know that going in so it's a challenge. You've just to battle anyway I can."

Eickhoff battled, but Scherzer had his A-game. Even if he had his B-game, he probably would have prevailed against a Phillies team that's scored fewer runs than every team in baseball other than the Atlanta Braves.

"Four hits last night, three tonight," Mackanin said. "Big home run by Howie but it wasn’t enough. Got to get hits and score runs if you want to win games and we’re just not doing that. We’re not scoring."

 • Strangely enough, Scherzer also took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of a start at Citizens Bank Park last year, in June, and Galvis also broke that one up with a booming double to right.

 • Ryan Howard’s home run was his 20th of the season. Howard has 10 20-home run seasons in his career. Only Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, with 14, has more 20-home run seasons in Phillies history.

 Howard has hit 43 of his 377 career home runs against Washington. He's only hit more against the Atlanta Braves (51) and New York Mets (46).

 • For the second time this season, Cameron Rupp took a hard hit at home plate and held on. In the top of the fourth, Danny Espinosa cold cocked Rupp with a violent elbow when the two crossed paths after Aaron Altherr’s throw took the Phillies catcher up the line.

"It brought me back to my football days," Rupp said. "I thought it was ironic that Tim Tebow's trying out for baseball and I'm taking hits at the plate on the same day."

And the hit?

"It's whatever," Rupp said. "I thought I gave him a lane. I thought, watching the replay, there's plenty of space for him to go and slide. But he didn't feel like he needed to. He was out."

Immediately after the collision at the plate, new backup catcher A.J. Ellis let Espinosa and the Nationals bench know how he felt about the hit, screaming from the top step of the Phillies dugout. The Phillies, somewhat surprisingly, did not retaliate against Espinosa in his next two at-bats.

"It’s tough in the heat of the moment," Ellis said. "As Danny’s coming around third, he wants to make a play for his team. But there is obviously an intent to veer and hit Cameron. That’s why the rule’s in place. Cameron gave him a lane to the inside of home and he veered instead to hit Cameron. That was my only complaint. That he took that path when there was an open path there for him.

"It’s my teammate, my partner. The last thing I want to see is him get hurt, and there’s a rule in place to protect us. Not all of us agree with it, and Cameron’s a hard-nosed guy and I know he loves that stuff, but there is a rule there. I’m not saying it was a dirty play, but there’s a rule there and Danny took that route when another route was available to him."

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