Offense has been tough to come by all season for the Washington Nationals against the Cincinnati Reds.
Now it’s the Reds who could have some trouble Tuesday night when Max Scherzer takes the mound for the Nationals.
Washington (46-37) had its home winning streak snapped at nine with a 3-2 loss in Monday’s series opener. The Nationals had averaged 4.4 runs during a 12-3 stretch before again being held in check by the Reds (37-44), who snapped a three-game skid.
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Cincinnati allowed just five hits and has outscored Washington 24-11 while taking all four meetings this year. The Nationals are hitting .206 in the series and the Nos. 3-5 hitters Monday were a combined 0 for 10.
Washington could be poised to turn the tables on the Reds, though, with Scherzer (9-6, 1.82 ERA) getting the ball.
The right-hander went the distance just once in 198 starts entering the season, but is second in the majors with three complete games – all coming over his last four outings. He’s 3-1 with a 1.05 ERA in that span, giving up 11 hits and one walk in 34 1-3 innings.
It’s that recent dominance especially – including a no-hitter against Pittsburgh on June 20 – that has Scherzer looking like the frontrunner to start for the NL in next Tuesday’s All-Star Game. He leads the league in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts.
Scherzer hasn’t had a base on balls in three straight games and is walking only 1.06 batters per nine innings after never posting a rate lower than 2.35 prior to this season.
"The only thing I’ve done differently is that I’m attacking the strike zone even more," Scherzer told MLB’s official website.
"Because I’m pounding the zone, the hitters are reacting to that and they are more aggressive earlier in the count. They are trying to put the ball in play earlier in the count. It’s feeding itself, so I’m getting quicker outs. When you get quicker outs and you don’t walk guys, then you are pitching deeper in the game."
Scherzer has faced Cincinnati only once, giving up one run over six innings in Arizona’s 2-1 loss Sept. 14, 2008.
Washington is also in for a challenge against Johnny Cueto (5-5, 2.84), who is seeking his second consecutive All-Star nod as one of five candidates for the final NL spot.
With Cincinnati well out of contention and Cueto in the final year of his deal, speculation about a possible trade continues to swirl. If it’s been a distraction for the right-hander, he hasn’t shown it.
He comes off one of his best outings of the year, limiting Minnesota to one run and four hits over eight innings in a 2-1 victory Wednesday.
"Sometimes when it looks unrealistic to have a player return, I hope everyone has a chance to step back and enjoy what they’re seeing," manager Bryan Price said. " … But I do think we’re seeing a really special pitcher right now. And regardless of where he ends up, if it’s in Cincinnati or somewhere else, he’s a special pitcher to watch."
Cueto, who hasn’t won on the road since May 9, is 6-3 with a 4.06 ERA in 10 career starts against the Nationals, recording a quality start in five of the last six.
Washington’s Denard Span and Yunel Escobar left Monday’s game. Manager Matt Williams said Span was bothered by back spasms and Escobar was dealing with a tight hamstring, though he didn’t comment on the seriousness of the injuries. Span is 5 for 10 off Cueto.