If Max Scherzer doesn't win the Cy Young, he'll have himself (and the Braves) to blame

WASHINGTON -- From a distance, it looked like classic Dusty Baker. But it turns out it was classic Max Scherzer.

Before Wednesday’s game against the Atlanta Braves, Baker was asked if individual feats -- such as Scherzer gunning for his third Cy Young Award -- can be a motivating factor at a time of year when Major League Baseball games can be otherwise meaningless.

“You have to find whatever motivation that you can find,” said Baker, whose Washington Nationals have clinched the National League East. “I urge my guys to not be selfish but try to accomplish personal accomplishments and accolades. I want all my gloves to get Gold Gloves, silver bats, batting titles, RBI titles.”

Although Baker didn’t explicitly mention pitching’s highest honor, it seemed as though his actions Wednesday night were geared toward just that.

With the game tied 2-2 after six innings and Scherzer already at 95 pitches, Baker sent his ace back out to the hill for the top of the seventh. That in and of itself seemed a curious decision, given that (A) Scherzer was only two weeks removed from a lingering neck injury that sent him to the disabled list for the first time in three seasons with Washington; (B) he hadn’t been particularly sharp up to that point, allowing six hits and two walks; (C) thanks to expanded September rosters, the Nationals' bullpen had no fewer than 11 relievers just a phone call away.

But wait, there’s more.

After Scherzer walked Lane Adams to start the seventh and take his pitch count to 100, Baker left him in. After Scherzer walked pinch hitter Jace Peterson to put his pitch count at 107 (more than he’d thrown in any of his three starts since coming off the DL), Baker left him in. After Scherzer walked leadoff man Ozzie Albies -- just the second time in his career that he had walked the bases loaded -- by throwing four unintentional balls that were closer to Northern Virginia than the strike zone, Baker still left the right-hander in. Dansby Swanson followed with a two-run single, which was followed by an intentional walk to Freddie Freeman, which was followed by Baker walking out to the mound and finally taking the ball from his ace, an overdue action that was met with a surreal mixture of boos (why’d you leave him in so long?) and cheers (you did great, considering how long he left you in!) from the crowd of 24,000-plus.

At the time, it seemed like textbook decision-making from Baker, a three-time Manager of the Year who can’t seem to shake his reputation for having one of the slowest hooks in the game, a rep that has stuck with him ever since his days in Chicago, when promising young Cubs starters Mark Prior and Kerry Wood ran into arm trouble under Baker’s watch. As it turns out, the decision to leave Scherzer dangling out there Wednesday was none other than Scherzer’s.

Standing in front of his locker after what finished as an 8-2 loss, Washington’s $210 million dollar man, whose workaholic reputation precedes him, explained the method to his madness: “With the postseason coming into play, with an extra day coming up, I asked, and we thought it would be a good idea to try to get me into 120, 115, 110 pitch count tonight. I thought that would help benefit me going forward and then looking ahead into the postseason, to pitch with some extra fatigue. Usually, I've been able to do that in the past. But because of all the little injuries I've been dealing with, I haven't really been able to get past 100 pitches for quite a while.”

The truth is that Scherzer threw 104 pitches in his previous start against the Philadelphia Phillies, but that was the first time in nearly a month that he had topped the century mark. Not to mention, there’s a big difference between 104 pitches and 115 or 120 pitches, between going kind of deep into the game and going legit deep into the game. Especially when it comes to the postseason. Especially when it comes to Scherzer.

For all the accolades that the 33-year-old hurler has received during his career, for all the hardware he has taken home, for all the recognition he gets for being one of the game’s most indestructible workhorses, his Achilles' heel has been an inability to remain effective deep into his postseason starts. If you don’t believe it, check out Scherzer’s numbers in 12 career playoff starts:

Through the sixth inning: 2.81 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, .178 BAA

After the sixth inning: 18.00 ERA, 2.75 WHIP, .429 BAA

Included in those numbers is last season’s start against the Dodgers in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, in which Scherzer threw six shutout innings, then allowed a leadoff homer in the seventh that tied the game, which L.A. went on to win. If you think Scherzer’s late-season, late-game letdowns didn’t factor into his go-deep game plan against the Braves, think again.

“I knew it was important for me,” he said, “going into that start tonight, to be able to get to that level.” It was so important that he was willing to sully his stellar Cy Young CV.

Entering his start against Atlanta, Scherzer was 14-5 with a 2.32 ERA (second in the NL), a 0.875 WHIP (first) and 239 strikeouts (first). Despite missing a few starts because of the neck injury, he was still probably the front-runner for the Cy Young Award. By the time the damage was done Wednesday -- reliever Brandon Kintzler allowed a grand slam to Matt Kemp, the first batter he faced after taking over in the seventh -- Scherzer’s ERA was all the way up to 2.59, and his WHIP sat at 0.92. Although his NL ranks in those categories remain unchanged, there’s suddenly a whole lot less distance between Scherzer and the guys behind him. And presumably, there's a whole lot more doubt in the minds of voters who were already going to have a hard enough time deciding between Scherzer and Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (both have been dominant, and both have missed time), not to mention other candidates such as L.A. closer Kenley Jansen and Arizona righty Zack Greinke.

But Scherzer doesn't seem to mind one bit.

"My arm has been feeling so good,” said a positively giddy Scherzer, who, thanks to the time he missed, is on pace for 206 innings, which would be his lightest workload since the 2012 season. “I'm feeling so fresh right now. It's weird to be fresh in September. Look, I'm never going to sit here and say I love going out there and walking guys, even in the seventh inning. But look, I got something out of it. I pushed my pitch count deep. Even though I wasn't throwing strikes and my off-speed stuff wasn't sharp there in the seventh, I took a step forward of where I need to be for the postseason.”

If Scherzer is where he needs to be come October, it’ll go a long way toward helping him and the Nationals win the hardware they’re really after.