ATLANTA -- The Nationals were hoping for a deep outing from right-hander Max Scherzer to provide a breather for their taxed relief corps. They have not had a starter complete the sixth inning in any of their past three games and were hoping Scherzer could help them reset their bullpen and stop a brief skid.
However, Scherzer struggled with his fastball command as he labored through five innings in Saturdays' 5-2 loss to the Braves at SunTrust Park. He battled through 106 pitches to make it that far into the game, and even if he had anything left to push into the sixth, a one-hour, 50-minute rain delay knocked him out.
Scherzer struck out six but walked three and gave up three runs on a pair of homers. Rio Ruiz, Atlanta's No. 22 prospect as rated by MLBPipeline.com, launched the first homer of his Major League career with a two-run shot in the second, and Matt Kemp added a solo blast in the fourth.
"A lot of things that are a staple of what I think make me a successful pitcher I just didn't do," Scherzer said. "Just could never find a rhythm. I was talking with [pitching coach Mike Maddux] in between innings just trying to find anything, and nothing really seemed to stick.
"But there's worse things in the world -- as frustrating as that is to only give up three runs in that scenario -- it could've been a lot of worse."
That Scherzer was even making this start unencumbered was a testament to his resiliency. In his last outing, he was drilled on the left knee with a line drive. Although he stayed in the game, it was unclear at the time how much treatment the knee would require between starts. But he carried no lingering effects from that injury into this game, and Nats manager Dusty Baker called him a bit of a medical marvel considering how quickly he healed.
Scherzer had dominated the Braves recently, a team he owned five consecutive victories against, including a seven-shutout-innings gem on April 18. But this marked his shortest start versus Atlanta since 2009.
Normally, Scherzer heavily relies on his fastball, but on Saturday, he was not able to get it in sync the entire outing. Catcher Matt Wieters said it was by far the least command Scherzer has had with the pitch all season, but he was saved by leaning on an effective slider, which generated nine of his 12 swinging strikes on the night.
"Real tough because then you're searching for all your offspeed pitches," Scherzer said. "You're searching for your slider, you're searching for your curveball, changeup. That was the only saving grace, the only thing that kept me in the ballgame and kept us from blowing open, is that I did have slider command.
"I was able to throw my slider for strikes, able to somehow locate that pitch. But this would be going back to the drawing board. Figure out what I need to do mechanically, go have a good 'pen, flush this out and have a good start next time."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.