In a pitcher’s duel between Sonny Gray and Max Scherzer on Saturday afternoon, it was the Cincinnati Reds’ defense that was the first to blink.
With the score tied in the fifth inning and a runner on second base, Mike Moustakas committed two errors on a single play, booting a ground ball and airmailing the throw. The Los Angeles Dodgers took a two-run lead on the next pitch, a two-run triple from Gavin Lux.
Gray allowed only two hits to the outfield in six innings, but that was enough to saddle him with four runs in the Reds’ 5-1 loss to the Dodgers in front of 29,861 fans.
"The one error cost us the game," Moustakas said. "Sonny threw the ball fantastic today. He did a great job. Battled it out with one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Max threw the ball phenomenal for them. One error cost the ballgame."
The Reds are three games back in the loss column from the St. Louis Cardinals for the second wild-card spot with 13 games remaining in the regular season.
Gray pitched better than what the numbers showed in the box score: six innings, four hits, four runs (three earned), two walks and five strikeouts. He needed only 40 pitches through his first four innings, inducing weak contract and forcing hitters to expand the strike zone.
"I was convicted," Gray said. "I was aggressive. I was just trying to go right after them and see who was better."
Catcher Tucker Barnhart added: "Even in the inning where they scored three runs, I can’t really remember any pitches that I would necessarily say that were not executed or bad pitches per se."
The Dodgers pulled away in the fifth inning after Justin Turner hit a leadoff double to left field. On the next pitch, Chris Taylor hit a ground ball to Moustakas at third base. Moustakas dropped the ball as he looked Turner back to second base, hurried to pick up the ball and then went wide left on his throw to first base. Both runners advanced one base on the errant throw.
"It was a routine play that I just got ahead of myself trying to do a little too much," Moustakas said. "I thought I had it in my glove. Obviously, I didn’t. When I went to kind of look Turner back to second, I didn’t have the ball. I just made a bad throw to first base. Credit to him for running down the baseline hard. He didn’t make me rush my throw. I just made a bad throw."
Suddenly, Gray was in a jam with two runners in scoring position and no outs.
Gavin Lux, who was scratched from Friday’s game with a bruised forearm from a stray pitch out of a pitching machine, lined a first-pitch slider down the first-base line for a two-run triple. Lux slid into third base and clapped in front of his dugout.
When pitching coach Derek Johnson began walking onto the field for a mound visit, Moustakas went up to Gray.
“I told him it was my fault, keep going, keep throwing the ball the way he has," Moustakas said. "Obviously, he did nothing wrong there. He did exactly what he’s supposed to do."
The Dodgers followed Lux's two-run triple with two more runs. One came from a swinging bunt (fifth inning) and another came from a successful squeeze bunt (sixth inning).
Gray allowed only two hits into the outfield. He's permitted four-or-fewer hits in eight consecutive starts.
"They’re a great team, there is no doubt about it," Gray said of the Dodgers. "With the guys they run out there on the mound, it takes a very crisp game to come away with the win."
Jesse Winker summarized the Reds’ task this weekend when he said they were facing “a Cy Young candidate and two Hall of Famers.” They beat Walker Buehler on Friday and had no answers for Scherzer on Saturday.
Scherzer pitched seven shutout innings, extending his scoreless streak to 37 innings, allowing two hits and two walks. He retired 13 of his final 14 batters.
Barnhart was asked what makes Scherzer so tough in his postgame interview. He chuckled for a moment, thought about the question, and started his answer by saying, "everything."
"I’ve faced him my entire career, dating back to Detroit, watching him pitch all those years," Moustakas said. "It just seems like he keeps getting better and better. His stuff keeps getting better. His location is getting better. His spin gets better. And his ability to command the strike zone just gets better. It’s a tough at-bat as soon as you step in the box.
"You have to hope he makes a couple of mistakes for you that day and he just didn’t today."
It was a hot and muggy 88-degree afternoon, a game where home-plate umpire Brian O’Nora exited in the fourth inning because he was ill. Scherzer and Gray were unaffected.
Scherzer, however, was relentless. The Reds had two runners on base with one out in the second inning after a Joey Votto walk and a Kyle Farmer infield single. Scherzer pitched out of it with a strikeout and groundout.
Jonathan India hit a one-out double in the left-center gap in the third inning, pumping his fist when he reached the second-base bag. Scherzer didn't flinch and he escaped with a groundout and a flyout.
"He’s one of the games best and one of the best this game has ever seen," Barnhart said. "Just one of those days."
Not even hitter-friendly GABP affects Scherzer, who has the lowest ERA in the National League (2.08). He owns a 0.33 ERA in four career starts in Cincinnati, allowing one run in 27 innings.
The Dodgers have won all nine of Scherzer’s starts since they acquired him at the trade deadline. As a member of the Dodgers, he's posted a 0.78 ERA across 58 innings. If the Reds find a way to the postseason – and it's an uphill climb at this point – he'll likely be the guy they face in the Wild Card Game.
A scary thought.
"It was definitely a tough day going against Scherzer," Reds manager David Bell said. "Everything had to go perfect to win that game."