Consistency is much of what separates those who are good from those who are great and Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer is no stranger to the concept.
In each of the past three seasons he's pitched over 210 innings with ERAs at 3.15 or lower. He was an All-Star in each of those years and finished no worse than fifth in Cy Young voting.
With Scherzer, you usually know what you're going to get. High strikeouts, low walks and every once in a while an outing for the history books.
Yet through 11 starts in 2016, steadiness from start to start has eluded him. There's been something off, something missing that has left him with an uncharacteristically high 4.05 ERA and an MLB-high 15 homers allowed.
Take his walks, for instance. Over his last six outings, Scherzer has alternated between walking zero batters and walking three or more. In Friday night's loss to the Cardinals, Scherzer walked four including one with the bases loaded to score a run. In his previous start he walked nobody in eight frames at the Mets.
One day he'll have it and then the next he just won't.
"Of course I'm upset about the walks," Scherzer said after the Nats' 6-2 loss on Friday. "It seems like I keep walking the left-handed hitters. That's the bigger thing that will frustrate me more than the walks themselves."
The two most costly walks Scherzer issued on Friday came in the third inning, the frame he allowed five runs. Both of those walks - one to Greg Garcia and one to Matt Holliday - came in counts that began with two strikes. Holliday's was with the bases loaded and scored a run. It was the first time Scherzer walked in a run since April of 2013 and just the fourth time he's ever made that mistake.
"I'm not going to beat myself up over those because I was in 0-2 counts and I ended up walking them. It's more indicative that I just didn't have put-away pitches at that point," Scherzer said.
The walks that bothered Scherzer more did not lead to runs. Those were leadoff walks to begin the first and second innings.
"I'm actually more frustrated with the first two walks more than anything, because those can lead to dangerous innings where you have the leadoff walk," Scherzer said.
Friday night was the second time this season that Scherzer has allowed four walks. In 2015, he never walked four in a game. Through 11 starts Scherzer is already at 22 walks on the season after only giving up 34 total in 33 starts last season.
The walks are one thing for Scherzer. Homers are another. And it was again the longball that did Scherzer in on Friday, this time a grand slam by Stephen Piscotty in the third inning. It was just the second grand slam Scherzer has ever given up and his first since 2010.
Piscotty got a hanging slider and walloped it over the left field fence for his first career slam.
"It was a dumb pitch," Scherzer admitted. "I hadn't shown my fastball yet and I threw another slider and I hung it. He put a good swing on it, ended in a blast."
It was part of a sequence of sliders Scherzer threw to Piscotty and he was waiting for it.
"Including the last at-bat he threw me four straight sliders. Luckily, I got that one," Piscotty said.
Scherzer has now allowed 42 homers over the last two seasons in 44 starts, more than any other pitcher. Since July 7 of 2015, Scherzer has given up 35 homers in 28 games.
"I know I've been giving up a ton of home runs," Scherzer said. "But that one, that's just an execution thing. That's just me not throwing the right pitch at the right time with poor execution. So that's one where you don't beat yourself up over."
It has been a confusing season for Scherzer, but luckily for the Nats it hasn't hurt them much at all. They are tied for first place with the New York Mets and still boast one of baseball's best rotations with their other four holding ERAs at 2.87 or lower.
Scherzer is their ace, but currently qualifies as their weakest link. While he searches for consistency from start to start, his teammates remain patient and point to his body of work as a whole.
"I'll take him out there any day," shortstop Danny Espinosa said. "He goes out and competes and tonight, just didn't have everything that he wanted."
"It's not how you start, it's how you finish," center fielder Ben Revere said. "With him, he's a pitcher who could finish strong. He'll definitely be big support for us coming down the stretch because he's one of our go-to guys. He's definitely our main guy. It's just one of those games that a couple pitches got away from him. Eventually it's going to come together and he'll be the Max Scherzer that we all know."
Postgame analysis of the Nats' 6-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night at Nationals Park.
How it happened: Max Scherzer's play this season continues to be an outlier both for the Nationals' 2016 rotation and within the context of his career. The former Cy Young winner put in yet another uncharacteristic outing on Friday night, not only losing command of the strike zone, but issuing runs in a fashion you just don't see often from the Nationals' ace.
Scherzer gave up five runs in total to the Cardinals on Friday and four of them came on a grand slam by Stephen Piscotty. It was just the second grand slam Scherzer has ever allowed and the first since 2010. Scherzer also walked in a runner with the bases loaded for just the fourth time in his nine MLB seasons.
Those two plays happened in back-to-back at-bats. You just don't see that very often.
The Nationals' unbeaten record against St. Louis was broken with the 6-2 loss, the fourth defeat for the Nats in their last seven contests. The Nationals are now an even .500 at 13-13 in the month of May.
What it means: The loss doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, but Scherzer's season remains a concern. Things could be worse, of course, but he has clearly been the weakest link in their rotation so far. It's unexpected and the Nats are fortunate the rest of their starting group has otherwise been so good. Even with Scherzer's 4.05 ERA, the Nats rank second in baseball as a rotation in the category. This is the latest Scherzer has held an ERA above 4.00 since 2012 and after his 11th start, it's no longer early.
Homer, walks do Scherzer in: Six of the seven innings Scherzer threw were scoreless and he allowed only three hits, but a disastrous third inning was all it took to ruin his Frday night. Scherzer first ran into trouble by giving up a one-out single to pitcher Jaime Garcia. He then walked Greg Garcia, allowed a single to Aledmys Diaz and then a walk to Matt Holliday to bring in a run. It was the first time since April 24, 2013 that Scherzer has walked in a run. The next at-bat was Piscotty's grand slam, a towering shot to left field off a slider. Scherzer has allowed a league-high 15 homers this season. No pitcher has given up more than the 42 bombs he's surrendered since the start of 2015. It was also the second time Scherzer has allowed four walks this season. He didn't walk four batters in a game all of 2015. Over his last six starts, Scherzer has alternated between zero walk outings and ones where he issues three or more. It's a strange trend that even he probably can't explain.
Espinosa homers again: Danny Espinosa homered for the second straight night and now has five on the season. He has four homers in May. He also had four homers last May, more than any other month in 2015. His career-high is eight set back in May of 2011. Espinosa likes hitting homers in May, apparently.
Murphy ties hits record: Daniel Murphy got another hit in this one, a single to left field in the sixth inning. That gave him 40 in May, which tied a Nationals record for hits in a single month. Denard Span also had 40 hits in August of 2014. Murphy has four more games left in May to break it. The odds are pretty good he'll end up closer to 50 than he will 40 with the way he's been playing. The record for hits in one month, by the way, is held by Ty Cobb. He had 68 in July of 1912. Murphy's been good, but he isn't getting anywhere close to that.
Up next: The Nationals and Cardinals continue their series with a 7:15 p.m. first pitch on Saturday night. Gio Gonzalez (3-2, 2.87) will square off with Adam Wainwright (4-3, 5.77) in a rematch of Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.
Nationals minor league pitcher Taylor Jordan, a veteran of three MLB seasons, underwent Tommy John surgery on Thursday to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm. It was the second time Jordan has had the procedure.
The 27-year-old went under the knife after making three starts for Triple-A Syracuse this season. He held a 1.72 ERA across 15 2/3 total innings.
Jordan also had the surgery back in 2011 and made a full recovery to debut with the Nationals in 2013. In 18 total MLB games he has a 4.48 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings. Last season Jordan gave up 10 earned runs in four appearances in the big leagues.
The Nationals took Jordan in the ninth round of the 2009 draft out of high school. Dr. James Andrews performed his Tommy John surgery. The rehab process is generally 12 to 18 months.