Perhaps, at the end of it all, the biggest question left unanswered about Max Scherzer’s 20-strikeout game was what exactly was in the cooler his teammates poured on him afterward — and did it taste better than chocolate sauce? But, of course, try as we might to recap a game like that in the moments immediately following it, other, far less important questions will remain. Below, find a few of those questions and their answers, as provided by those involved in history.
Was Scherzer particularly pumped up to face his former teammates?
Scherzer admitted after the game that Wednesday was “an emotional game” for him, as he took on the Detroit Tigers for the first time since signing with the Nationals after the 2014 season. He had spoken all week about the opportunity to face Tigers’ great Miguel Cabrera, who he talks about often as the gold standard for major league hitters. He was matched against former National Jordan Zimmermann.
“Facing a former team and all those guys I have so much respect for and how they play the game and how they compete,” Scherzer said. “I really think the world how they go out there and play the game, and so to have a game like this against that caliber of hitters on their side, that really puts a feather in my cap because I really respect and really admire how they go about the game.”
His manager, Dusty Baker, has joked repeatedly about Scherzer’s in-game intensity, but saw another level in him Wednesday.
“He wanted it,” Baker said. “You could tell he was psyched before the game to pitch against his former teammates and also to pitch against Zimmermann, who was very, very good tonight.”
Scherzer allowed seven runs in his last start, in which the Cubs hit four home runs against him at Wrigley Field last week. Maybe he needed the Tigers to come to town, he posited late Wednesday night. They forced him to increase his intensity even more. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was in Detroit with Scherzer for a year, and saw a little extra in Scherzer Wednesday.
“When he was on the mound he had a little adrenaline push facing his old teammates,” Ausmus said. “And I thought he might, knowing Max.”
What went so well?
After that seven-run debacle in Chicago, Scherzer looked flummoxed, unable to explain the trouble nor his early inconsistency. He looked like himself again Wednesday night, pounding the strike zone to get ahead — the thing he focused on throughout last year’s success.
“I believe the biggest difference between this outing and the one in Chicago is the fact that he was hitting his spots a lot better,” said Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos through team translator Octavio Martinez. “He didn’t really give up too many pitches over the zone. The two that he did were the two home runs, really. But he attacked the zone and kept moving those pitches and he locating his fastball a lot better, I think that’s the biggest difference.”
Scherzer, like most pitchers, always pitches off his fastball. But most pitchers do not have a fastball like Scherzer did Wednesday night — the kind that could get Miguel Cabrera and other potent hitters up and down the Tigers powerful lineup to swing right through them.
“When the fastball’s got second-half to it [you know he will be good],” Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “When it’s got explosion at the dish, and when you see guys swinging through fastballs, especially in fastball counts. And then he’s got that good put-away fastball late in the count, that kind of riding fastball on lefties. When I see them swinging through that, I’ve experienced that personally. That’s unpleasant. When he’s got that good heater going, you really have to respect it. It really opens up the rest of his pitches.”
Scherzer said he was missing with his fastball early on — up, normally — but it was working anyway. Stephen Strasburg had told him he had success against the Tigers going up with fastballs, so Scherzer kept that in the back of his mind as he carved through the order four times.
“I know that’s something I’m capable of doing and that can be a strength of mine,” Scherzer said. “I’ve watched these guys for so many years, going out and competing but when you get intel like that, you got somebody telling you how to pitch these guys. … I know that was a little nugget I kept in the back of my mind, and just trying to keep finding situations where I could go up with a fastball and then expand with a slider.”
When did the Nationals realize Scherzer could make history?
Scherzer said he heard someone mention 18 strikeouts some time in the eighth inning, at which point he realized he had a chance at 21 — never done before in a nine-inning game. Ramos said he “wasn’t really aware” of the potentially record-breaking strikeout total until he looked at the scoreboard and saw 17.
“That’s when it started actually hitting me a little bit,” Ramos said. “I started trying to dictate the game and game calling based on trying to get a punch out as opposed to trying have the [hitter] put the ball in play. And that’s when it became more obvious of what was going on. I wasn’t sure of the record, but obviously I knew that it was a high total and I was trying to help him out get that.”
Murphy said he realized what was happening some time in the eighth inning, at which point he wanted more runs so Baker would feel comfortable sending Scherzer back out for the ninth.
“If we get more runs, then he’s definitely going to send him back out there,” Murphy said. “I think he was probably at about 105 or somewhere in there if I’m not mistaken coming out in the eighth inning. I know the skipper had a decision to make in there. I’m sure Max probably made it easy for him.”
Scherzer said later he did not have much conversation about coming out at all. Baker said he realized as the innings went on that Scherzer’s strikeout count was mounting — which would likely force him into a decision between health, history, and holding on to a win.
“Well I knew there was a lot, but then they put it up on the board, and I was like ‘aw, no,'”Baker said. “At that point in time, how often do you have a chance to make history like that? So we just have to watch him his next start. He was throwing almost as hard, minus a couple miles per hour, late as he was early. So that shows you what kind of shape Max is in. He trains hard, he’s in great shape. I’m sure the whole team is so happy that we won and Max won.”