WASHINGTON (AP) — On a day when the Philadelphia Phillies appeared to survive Max Scherzer, they were done in by Wilmer Difo.
Scherzer struck out 15 in only 6⅓ innings, and the Washington Nationals then rallied for two runs in the ninth to beat the Phillies 5-4 Sunday.
The feat comes two years ago this month, when the 33-year-old struck out 20.
Scherzer pitched for the the La Crosse Loggers back in 2004 when he was 19. It was after that 20-strikeout performance that then Loggers GM Chris Goodell said he could see Scherzers’ potential even then.
“His first fastball popped the mitt at about 96 and everybody kind of sat back and said, ‘This is a little different. This is something special,’” Goodell said.
Sunday, Scherzer and Phillies starter Jake Arrieta, who have combined to win the last three NL Cy Young Awards, kept things close into the late innings before both bullpens faltered.
“I had my pitches, but I just kept falling behind in the count,” Scherzer said. “I didn’t do a good job (of getting ahead), but was able to make pitches, get the count back to two strikes and throw an out pitch, and obviously collected a ton of strikeouts today.”
Scherzer, who has won the last two NL Cy Youngs, fanned seven batters in a row at one stretch and got 12 consecutive outs via strikeout from the second to the sixth inning. He gave up a run on five hits and two walks.
Philadelphia closer Hector Neris (1-2) took a 4-3 lead into the ninth but didn’t get an out. He walked pinch hitter Pedro Severino with the bases loaded to tie it and Difo followed with a winning single.
The Phillies used a five-man infield against Difo, pulling their center fielder — Difo singled to the vacated spot in center, though his ball likely would’ve been deep enough to score a run in any case.
“He was a little out of control with his pitches and I just went with the mentality to get a good pitch and if did, hit it hard,” Difo, who has safely reached base in 15 of his last 23 plate appearances, said through a translator.
Sean Doolittle (1-1) pitched the ninth.
Anthony Rendon, who came off the disabled list Saturday, singled home two runners — both had walked — in the eighth to pull Washington within 4-3.
“Obviously, our bullpen should come in and throw strikes to the best of their ability,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said after his relievers issued four walks. “That’s one thing they have to do. It didn’t happen today.”
Scherzer’s effort came on the 20th anniversary of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout performance against the Houston Astros. Scherzer struck out 20 Detroit Tigers on May 11, 2016.
The Phillies trailed 1-0 before a three-run seventh that began against Scherzer, who left after recording his 15th strikeout on his 111th pitch.
“We had conversations from the fifth inning on,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I know Max, and at that point, he went out in that last inning with purely heart.”
It was 1-0 when Scherzer was pulled with one out and a runner on second. Rhys Hoskins’ RBI double gave the Phillies a 2-1 lead and he came around to score on Odubel Herrera’s third hit of the day.
“Max had his stuff today,” Hoskins said. “We got punched in the mouth for the first five innings.”
Maikel Franco added a solo homer in the eighth. Franco was the only Phillies starter Scherzer didn’t fan.
Arrieta allowed a run on two hits over six innings. He won the 2015 NL Cy Young with the Cubs.
Matt Adams homered in the Washington second, his fifth home run in six games.
Arrieta on being lifted for a pinch hitter after throwing 75 pitches in six innings: “Max is punching out 29 and we have to try to find a way to score. It’s tough to come out of the game, but you understand why you have to.”
ATOP THE LEADERBOARD
It was Scherzer’s fifth career game with 15 or more strikeouts, tops among active players and tied for seventh most all-time.
Nationals: 1B Ryan Zimmerman, still sore after diving in Friday’s game, said he hopes to be back in the lineup Monday barring any setbacks. … RHP Trevor Gott, who left Friday’s game with a sprained ankle, was available. … RHP Shawn Kelley (elbow irritation) pitched a scoreless inning in a rehab outing with Class A Potomac.
Phillies: RHP Zach Elfin (0-0, 1.50) opposes San Francisco RHP Jeff Samardzija (1-1, 5.27) when the teams open a four-game series in Philadelphia. Elfin is 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in three starts versus the Giants.
Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg (3-3, 3.47) pitches the opener of a three-game series in San Diego opposite RHP Tyson Ross (2-2, 3.28). Strasburg is 6-2 with a 2.94 ERA in eight outings against his hometown team.