About a half-hour after the Washington Nationals season came to its gut-wrenching end, Max Scherzer’s pitching eye and non-pitching eye blazed wide, united in a devastated daze.
“It was a good pitch,” he said, reliving the pitch the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Joc Pederson hit out to tie the decisive Game 5, his last pitch of the 2016 season. “Right on the black.”
Scherzer then shook his head and turned to his locker, left to an offseason of wondering why his best stuff was not good enough when he needed it most. But it was good enough more often than not in 2016, so often that he was named the National League Cy Young Award winner Wednesday night, as voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
A month after that crushing loss, Scherzer sat with family and college friends on a boat in the British Virgin Islands, hollering with joy as he was sprayed with champagne, celebrating an impressive consolation prize. Scherzer became the sixth pitcher — and first since Roger Clemens in 2004 — to win baseball’s highest pitching honor in each league.
“For some reason, this just means so much more to me. It just verifies everything I try to go out there and set out to achieve,” said Scherzer, whose conference call with writers was choppier than most, since most conference calls are not conducted from the ocean. ” . . . Winning the second one confirms that everything I tried to do works.”
Scherzer is the first National to win the award, and the first Cy Young winner managed by Dusty Baker in his two decades spent managing four teams. Since the right-hander became the first $200 million man in Nationals history two winters ago, he has responded with two no-hitters, a 20-strikeout game and pitching’s most prestigious honor.
Scherzer, 32, beat out Cubs aces Lester and Kyle Hendricks in a decisive vote that does not include the postseason. He was named first on 25 of 30 ballots, with three second-place votes, one third and one fourth. Lester was second with one first-place vote the vote; Hendricks, first on two ballots, finished third.
Boston’s Rick Porcello, a former teammate of Scherzer’s in Detroit, won the American League Cy Young, beating out another former Scherzer teammate, Justin Verlander, and Indians right-hander Corey Kluber.
The Nationals earned finalists in each of the four major awards given out this week. Tree Turner lost out on the rookie of the year award and Baker fell short in the manager of year voting. Daniel Murphy is a finalist for NL MVP, which will be given out Thursday, but seems unlikely to beat out Cubs star Kris Bryant for the honor. Scherzer seemed D.C.’s best hope all along.
Though he was a late addition to the National League all-star team, and a late entry into the Cy Young race, Scherzer quietly stalked another elite season from start to finish. He led the National League in wins (20), innings pitched (228 1/3), strikeouts (284), WHIP (0.97) and strikeouts-to-walks ratio (5.07). He finished second in batting average against (. 196), seventh in ERA (2.96), and induced a higher percentage of swinging strikes than anyone in baseball (15.3 percent, according to FanGraphs).
“For me, it’s a culmination of everything, from the coaching staff, to how they prepared, from what I was able to do with [Wilson] Ramos and [Jose] Lobaton, everybody together in unison,” Scherzer said. “Competing at the same level, doing what we need to do when I take the mound, to going out there and actually doing it.”
When he stumbled, he usually tripped over home runs — though after he allowed the 14th-most home runs per nine innings in the first half of the season and the 20th fewest home runs per nine in the second half, almost a home run fewer every two starts. By some cruel symmetry, his ultimate demise came by the home run, the only run the Dodgers scored against him in six-plus innings in Game 5.
“I know we didn’t win the World Series. That was my ultimate goal,” Scherzer said. “But being able to pick up this second Cy Young really means a lot to me, and I owe it to my teammates.”
By that tough end to Game 5, the votes were in, Scherzer’s Cy Young fate sealed. Despite what he characterized as a disappointing playoff performance this season, Scherzer has proven himself a worthy recipient of the largest contract in franchise history. Since the start of the 2015 season, he has made two Opening Day starts, been named to two all-star squads, won 34 games and set new highs in strikeouts each season.
He has settled in as a clubhouse staple: He’s the guy who chooses when the team wears shorts for batting practice instead of pants, the veteran chatting with young pitchers in the dugout, the National who stood at his locker and defended Jonathan Papelbon the day the beleaguered closer’s tenure ended. Scherzer says he prefers to lead by example.
His example is a testament to unbridled competitiveness, a perfectionist’s preparation, and ferocious focus. His approach to pitching amounts to “calculated fury.” Any description of his demeanor must be time-sensitive: For four days out of five, he is loud and mischievous. For the fifth, he is quiet and competitive — so much so that his manager learned the hard way not to try to high-five him in the midst of a start.
Scherzer is not the kind of player to hunt individual accolades, though as his celebration Wednesday showed, he appreciates them. While he is polite at mention of his no-hitters, he is far more willing to spend a summer afternoon recalling some postseason outing from his past — batter by batter, pitch by pitch. Those, he always says, are the games he lives for. But nights like these aren’t too bad, either.
“I know I have things in my game I would like to be better, things I would like to improve on in 2017,” Scherzer said. “But to win this award, there’s so much history and so much meaning to it . . . to be able to win the award over [Lester and Hendricks] obviously means something amazing.”
So if this October’s disappointment cast a shadow on his 2016 season, a second Cy Young will offer the consolation of another elite season of individual accomplishment. Since 2010, no starter has struck out more batters than Scherzer, and no one has won more games.