Thirty years ago, on a raw, spring night in New England, a 23-year-old right-hander took to the Fenway Park mound for the 39th start of his major league career. The Boston Celtics, en route to their 16th NBA championship, hosted the Atlanta Hawks in a playoff game across town, and the region’s attention was focused on Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins. Just 13,414 hearty souls dotted the stands at the old ballpark.
And then Roger Clemens went to work against the Seattle Mariners. He struck out Spike Owen to start. He struck out Phil Bradley next. He struck out Ken Phelps to fan the side in the first.
No one, before that night, had struck out 20 hitters in a nine-inning major league game. Clemens did that night. Ten years later, he did it again. Wednesday night, Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals matched him, whiffing 20 Detroit Tigers to become the fourth pitcher to reach that number in nine innings.
Dating from the 19th century, there have been 23 perfect games — and Scherzer would have made it 24 last June had a two-out pitch in the ninth inning not grazed Pittsburgh’s Jose Tabata, a hit batsman that became his only blemish. There have been 295 no-hitters – including two by Scherzer last year, and another by the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta last month, further proof that such an accomplishment is significant but not shocking. Baseball has averaged nearly three no-hitters a season since 2000.
But 20 strikeouts over nine innings? Five times. Ever. (Yes, Tom Cheney of the Washington Senators struck out 21 Baltimore Orioles back in 1962, but he needed 16 innings to do it — which is an entirely different subject, because who pitches 16 innings anyway?)
No-hitters can be thrown by journeymen and after-thoughts. There can be a fluky quality to them. But the five 20-strikeout games have come from four men who combined for 26 all-star game appearances and 13 Cy Young awards. A chronological breakdown:
Roger Clemens, Boston
Date, opponent: April 29, 1986, Seattle
Box score line: 9 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 20 K
Clemens was off to a fine start, and he faced the perfect team against which to best the record of 19 strikeouts in nine innings shared by three of the great power pitchers ever: Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. After striking out the side in the first, Clemens got some subtle “help” in the top of the fourth when first baseman Don Baylor dropped Gorman Thomas’s foul pop fly for an error. Clemens went on to strike out Thomas in that at-bat. Owen’s single leading off that inning was the Mariners’ first hit, and Clemens responded by striking out the next eight Mariners in order. The major blow against him came with two outs in the seventh when Thomas homered to center to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead (one that was erased by Dwight Evans’s three-run homer in the bottom of the frame). Seattle was ripe for this; no team in the 1980s struck out at a higher rate than the 1986 Mariners, at 18.6 percent. But this still was a contact era, with a lower league-wide strikeout rate (15.4 percent) than any other season that produced a 20-strikeout game. In the ninth, Clemens got Owen to tie the record, then Phil Bradley (for the fourth time) to set the new mark – but watched Ken Phelps ground out to end a 3-1 victory, preventing a 21st strikeout, which would still stand.
Clemens’s next start: vs. Oakland, 8 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 10 K
Clemens’s 1986 season: 24-4, league-best 2.48 ERA, 238 strikeouts in 248 innings, won Cy Young and MVP
Roger Clemens, Boston
Date, opponent: Sept. 18, 1996, at Detroit
Box score line: 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 20 K
Clemens’s time in Boston was, by this point, winding down. He was a free agent at the end of the season, and would make just two more outings in a Boston uniform. He also was struggling, setting a career high in walks that season, during which he turned 34. But again, he found a willing victim, because the 1996 Tigers struck out at a 20.4-percent rate, highest of any team during the 1990s. Clemens struck out ever Tiger he faced at least once, and entered the ninth with 19 strikeouts and a real chance to set a new record, but Alan Trammell popped up to start the inning, and after a single by Ruben Sierra – the Tigers didn’t have an extra-base hit in the game – Tony Clark hit a deep fly ball to left to eliminate Clemens’s opportunity to further history. Still, he rung up Travis Fryman for the fourth time to get the final out and match his mark from a decade earlier and complete a 4-0 Boston win. Clemens’s feats are even more impressive because he’s the only pitcher to strike out 20 while facing an American League team, which means he had no easy Ks against pitchers.
Clemens’s next start: at New York Yankees, 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 8 K
Clemens’s 1996 season: 10-13, 3.63 ERA, league-high 257 strikeouts in 242 2/3 innings
Kerry Wood, Chicago Cubs
Date, opponent: May 6, 1998, vs. Houston
Box score line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 20 K
This would appear to be the best of them all. Wood was a 20-year-old rookie making just the fifth start of his major league career, and he represented something the Cubs lacked for so long: hope. Like Clemens in 1986, he began the day by striking out the side (which, in fact, Astros starter Shane Reynolds did, too). Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez reached on an infield single to the shortstop hole to lead off the third, and the first of two balks by Wood allowed the Astros to get a runner to third than inning. But Wood stranded him there. He hit Craig Biggio with a pitch with two outs in the sixth – the only other Astro to reach base all game – but when he struck out the side in the fifth and the seventh, he had rung up 15, and the record was in reach. Wood struck out the side in the eighth, needing just three pitches to blow away both Gutierrez and Brad Ausmus (now the Tigers’ manager). After he got pinch hitter Bill Spiers leading off the ninth, Biggio, a future Hall of Famer, managed a grounder to short. That left Wood to blow away Derek Bell for the 20th strikeout, tying Clemens in the Cubs’ 2-0 win. Legendary sabermetrician Bill James invented the “game score” to evaluate individual pitching performances; no one has ever thrown a nine-inning game and scored higher than Wood’s 105 from this day. But by August, Wood’s elbow was tender, and he missed the final month of the regular season, pitched once in the playoffs, then underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of 1999.
Wood’s next start: at Arizona, 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 13 K
Wood’s 1998 season: 13-6, 3.40 ERA, 233 strikeouts in 166-2/3 innings
Randy Johnson, Arizona
Date, opponent: May 8, 2001 vs. Cincinnati
Box score line: 9 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 20 K
This game is notable because Johnson is the only 20-strikeout guy not to complete his game and leave with a no-decision – only because the Reds and Diamondbacks were tied at 1 after nine innings, and it took a three-run bottom-of-the-11th for Arizona to come back for a 4-3 victory. Regardless of that quirk, the Big Unit was at the height of his powers by this point, a 37-year-old lefty who had long since mastered the control problems that derailed his promise in Montreal and Seattle, where he led the league in walks three times. Johnson was on his way to a season in which he would strike out 372, still the third-highest season total ever. When he struck out the side in the fourth, he had nine Ks, but he actually fell behind in the fifth when Aaron Boone singled, stole second, and Ruben Rivera singled him home. The Diamondbacks tied it in the sixth, though, and Johnson responded by striking out the side in both the seventh and eighth – including a punch-out of future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, whom he got all three times he faced him. Johnson entered the ninth with 18 strikeouts, and he got Deion Sanders to lead off the inning. But Donnie Sadler managed a grounder to short before Johnson struck out Juan Castro to tie the record. The Diamondbacks couldn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, and Manager Bob Brenly relieved Johnson, who had thrown 124 pitches, with Byung-Hyun Kim in the 10th.
Johnson’s next start: vs. Philadelphia, 8 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 12 K
Johnson’s 2001 season: 21-6, league-best 2.49 ERA, league-high 372 strikeouts in 249 2/3 innings
Max Scherzer, Washington
Date/opponent: May 11, 2016 vs. Detroit
Box score line: 9 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 20 K
Though Scherzer can be dominant, in some ways Wednesday’s performance against the Tigers was a surprise. He was coming off a difficult outing at breezy Wrigley Field in which the Cubs hit four homers off him. Though Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias, with six career homers to his name, drove a first-pitch fastball out of the park to lead off the third, Scherzer recorded nine of his first 10 outs by strikeout. Scherzer then struck out James McCann and Anthony Gose to finish the seventh and get to 15, then Iglesias, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ian Kinsler — all three looking — to reach 18 entering the ninth. With a 3-1 lead, he hung a slider to J.D. Martinez, who hit it out to lead off the inning — Scherzer’s league-leading 11th home run allowed. But Scherzer responded by getting the great Miguel Cabrera for the third time to reach 19. Victor Martinez, the only hitter Scherzer didn’t strike out all night, followed with a single and represented the tying run. But he then fanned Justin Upton on three pitches to tie the record and had a chance to set a new mark against McCann – who managed a grounder to third that ended the game. Scherzer thus gave up more hits and more runs than anyone else on this list, but also threw just 23 balls in striking out 20 on 119 pitches.
Scherzer’s next start: TBD
Scherzer’s 2016 season: 4-2, 4.15 ERA, league-high 66 strikeouts in 52 innings