DJ Herz takes a spot in the record books; Just Breathe…

Yesterday, DJ Herz pitched the gem of the season for the Washington Nationals on a day that the offense was a little sluggish. The Nats needed Herz’s zeroes with a scant 1-0 lead then a 2-0 lead when he exited after 6.0 innings of shutout baseball. Herz was so good that he nearly had a no-hitter — and one grounder found a seam through the infield and made its way onto the green outfield grass for the only hit on Herz’s record. Of the 19 batters he faced, 13 went down via the strikeout. Only six baseballs were put in-play.

At times, the rookie left-hander looked at the embroidered message on his glove in cursive that reads “Breathe.” I asked him if I was reading it correctly, because at first, all I had was a fuzzier photo and asked him if that said “Breathe”, and he responded, “Yes it does.”

Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

So we asked what it all meant with “Breathe”, and we got a DM from Sam Guy, one of DJ’s mentors as well as a coach where Herz played at Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville, NC., and Guy said, “It reminds him to breathe before each pitch.”

For a normal person, you could go days without thinking about taking a breath. For a pitcher in the moment, that means something more. Guy continued, “You could literally see him controlling his breathing. He was just as calm as could be and could see he wasn’t getting worked up.” That was true, until that 13th strikeout was recorded to finish the 6th inning, and Herz shed his calm demeanor and let his emotions fly as he strutted off the mound backwards like he just landed the knockout punch in a title fight. He kind of did. Down went the hot Tim Anderson with a lefty 93 heater!

” …. I got the last strikeout [of Anderson], and I kind of had a little feeling that I was done — and just let my emotions fly a little bit. It was awesome.”

— Herz said after the game

You can see those emotions fly in this video clip:

Most pro players have custom embroidery on their Rawlings’ gloves. That is a mark of a pro when you have that. In 2022, it was “Ice up, son,” embroidered on Herz’s glove in an homage for his hometown Carolina wide receiver, Steve Smith Sr. Then a take-off on Max Scherzer‘s “Scherz Day” was used for 2023 with “Herz Day” on the next glove. Now it is “Breathe” and the one word simplicity is so important, especially for the key moments. When Herz pitched as a “prospect” in the Futures vs. Nats exhibition game on March 26 at Nats Park, he used his “Herz Day” glove at the time, and had to remind himself to breathe. The first batter he faced, Ildemaro Vargas, singled off of him. He calmed down after that and recorded six consecutive outs in his two innings of work. Now those same batters he faced just 82-days ago are his treasured teammates.

The amazing stat is that Herz finished with an 83 Game Score for the highest mark of the season for the Nats. Scherzer has the team record of 104 in his complete game no-hitter — the one with the 17 Ks. Mitchell Parker had a 79 Game Score on April 21, and Jake Irvin had a 76 GSc on May 28 for the previous two highest Game Scores. Herz now holds the Nats record for the highest Game Score in a 6.0 inning appearance, besting Jordan Zimmermann‘s 79 GSc on August 31, 2010.

Per @OptaSTATS, Herz’s 13 Ks of the 19 batters he faced (68.4%) was the second-highest K% by any MLB rookie in a game in the modern era (min. 15 batters faced), behind only Kerry Wood in his 20-strikeout game on May 6, 1998 (69.0%).

“I think this outing, I wanted to control my body language a little more, be a little better with that …”

“I told Sean Doolittle [Friday]: ‘I got the the changeup. I’m getting it in the zone [on Saturday]. That’s going to be the key,’ and we got the changeup in the zone, and that allowed me to get more chase, throw it out of the zone and get swings. I haven’t been able to do that the first two outings.”

— Herz after his start

With yesterday’s start on the books, Herz’s ERA improved to 3.77. With Josiah Gray nearing a return, Herz is on the clock to show that he deserves to stay. If that was his audition tape for a spot, he nailed the performance! That was masterful, a day after we were applauding MacKenzie Gore‘s Friday night under the lights going 7.0 innings with 10 Ks of one-run ball and notching a 72 Game Score.

When Herz arrived with Kevin Made in last year’s deadline trade of Jeimer Candelario, the Cubs sent a lefty with a high BB rate that worried some. Fans did not know what they had in Herz. Was he going to be a reliever who failed as a starter, or a bust as some thought that walk-rate from 2022 at Double-A at 9.4 BB/9 was a red flag. We got a very positive report on Herz’s offseason work from one of his off-season coaches. In late May, we were calling for a promotion of Herz, just to give everyone an extra rest day, during that marathon 17 straight days with games that the team was going through. Then to everyone’s shock, five days later, came the news that Trevor Williams was injured. We applauded the Herz promotion. He earned it.

When the Nats acquired Herz, he had a great changeup and fastball combo that I compared to Tyler Clippard. What Herz needed was to challenge the batter with pitches that were strikes. or at the very least. looked like strikes, and he needed to get that slider to be more effective. Well, I guess I was wrong about the slider. Herz has stuck with the Clippard repertoire of heavy usage of the fastball/changeup to great success so far. On Saturday, he threw 52.4 percent 4-seam fastballs, 34.5 percent changeups, 9.5 percent cutters, and only 3.6 percent sliders — and induced 21 swing & misses and plenty of buckled knees on called strikes.

By MLB’s definition, only one ball was hit hard against Herz yesterday, and that came on a 4-seam fastball that missed the target set by catcher Drew Millas. “I caught him the last time he had 10 [strikeouts]” Millas said about that May 30 Triple-A start in the tweet above. “And it felt very similar. He didn’t really miss much. And when he did, he just got swings-and-misses.”

What Herz needs is a good defensive catcher and a good umpire, and many were miffed by Herz getting pulled with one out in the fifth inning earlier in his second start. If you remember, homeplate ump, Andy Fletcher, was not giving Herz legit strikes at the bottom of the zone. Herz is most effective when he can pitch at the edges of the zone — just like he did yesterday. Success often depends on the umpire, and your catcher. Millas got Herz two low pitches out of the zone for strikes yesterday. In Herz’s entire outing yesterday, only one pitch was missed on an edge by the ump.

“I was very pleased with the 18 outs he gave us. He had 84 pitches. We could’ve sent him back out there — but I thought he did a great job.”

— manager Dave Martinez said about his decision to pull Herz after 6.0 innings

If Gore’s Friday night start set a high bar for Herz, imagine what that means for today’s starter, Parker. The baton has been passed. The Uncle Sam hat was a fitting reminder that the stars are earned.

For his next start on Friday, Herz is scheduled to pitch in the thin air of Colorado when breathing can sometimes burn inside the lungs at altitude. Just breathe.

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