A few hours before he toyed with the Phillies, Max Scherzer grabbed a few pieces of paper that detailed how a free-swinging lineup full of young hitters would be the ideal prey for the Washington ace. Scherzer beckoned his pitching coach and catcher for a pregame meeting in the visitors clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park.
"Let's do this," Scherzer said.
In a 3-2 Nationals win, it required five innings for the Phillies to muster a hit. Freddy Galvis tomahawked a 94-mph fastball to the right-field corner for a double to start the sixth. Two batters later, Galvis was picked off.
The Phillies made it competitive, but the fight was not fair. They entered the day with the worst on-base percentage (.297) in baseball. The Phillies had swung at 49 percent of pitches thrown at them, the highest rate among National League teams. Their 11.2 percent swing-and-miss rate was also highest in the league, and Scherzer boasted more strikeouts (227) than any other pitcher in baseball before Tuesday.
This is what happens when a first-place team meets a rebuilding one. Earlier this decade, the roles were reversed. Baseball, like life, is cyclical. So it goes.
"You are only going to get a couple of pitches to hit," Phillies catcher Cameron Rupp said. "You saw that he was damn near perfect for most of the game. And when you have a guy like that against a lineup like ours, where you have a lot of young kids that are trying to establish themselves here, it makes it a little bit easier on him you would think."
Ryan Howard's time in Philadelphia has dwindled to one month. He will play less in September, but he cracked a two-run, opposite-field homer on a Scherzer fastball in the seventh inning.
He started as the cleanup hitter Tuesday despite a lifetime 1-for-18 mark against Scherzer, with 11 strikeouts. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin reasoned that few hitters have good numbers vs. Scherzer, so he opted for the lefthanded-hitting Howard. The home run was his 20th of the season; Howard reached 20 homers for the 10th time, which trails only Mike Schmidt (14 seasons of 20 homers) in team history.
"It's cool," Howard said. ". . . Even though it's a lot less at-bats, hopefully it shows something."
Mackanin said he plans to "lean on" Tommy Joseph for the remainder of the season. Howard has started 14 games in August, while Joseph has made 12 starts. The rookie Joseph will earn more starts against righthanded pitchers. That decision, Mackanin said, is his.
"It makes sense to see Joseph as much as possible," Mackanin said. "Howie was swinging the bat extremely well. I'm just going to see if [Joseph] can put something together now."
With Scherzer on the mound, it is hard for anyone to put anything together. Since joining the Nationals, he has made eight starts against the Phillies. He has a 1.98 ERA in those games.
In all, Scherzer has started 61 times for Washington. He has carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning in nine of those starts. That means 15 percent of the time, he has toyed with history. Something special could happen one in every seven starts.
"We need to improve our plate discipline," Mackanin said. "We're just not getting hits. We had chances to win the game. But Scherzer was tough, you have to give him credit."
Scherzer retired the first 12 batters of the game on 39 pitches. Rupp drew a five-pitch walk with one out in the fifth. Then, on Scherzer's 56th pitch, Galvis spoiled the no-hitter.
Scherzer fanned 11 in eight innings. Jerad Eickhoff countered with a quality start, but that looked human compared to Scherzer.
"That's Scherzer, man," Howard said. "I mean, he's one of the best pitchers in the game for a reason."