Few pitchers in history could begin a start against a potential playoff team feeling all but certain they would make history as Scherzer did when he started against the Padres while six strikeouts away from 3,000. Fewer — and perhaps in recent years only Scherzer — could seize the moment so completely that merely recording his 3,000th strikeout almost qualified as a disappointment. The only thing better than becoming the 19th pitcher in MLB history to accumulate 3,000 strikeouts would have been throwing the 24th perfect game in history on the same day. He nearly did both.
“Stuff like that, it’s just a different level of execution and heartbeat,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said.
The list Scherzer joined Sunday begins with Washington Senators great Walter Johnson in 1923 and grew most recently when Scherzer’s former teammate Justin Verlander struck out his 3,000th batter in September 2019.
Somewhat incredibly, given the rich and extensive history of the franchise, Scherzer is the first pitcher to join that club as a member of the Dodgers. Somewhat painfully for those who hoped Scherzer would stay in Washington for the duration of his career, more than half of his 3,000 strikeouts — 1,610, to be exact — came in a Nationals uniform. His 3,000th would have come in a Nationals uniform, too, had Washington not traded him with two months to go on his seven-year contract.
That deal may go down as the best free agent signing in baseball history, given that Scherzer was dominant from the start. Of the 18 other pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts, 16 finished their careers long enough ago to be Hall of Fame eligible. Of those 16, only two — Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling — are not there yet. Of the 14 in the Hall of Fame, only six have won as many Cy Young Awards as Scherzer’s three.
“That’s pretty cool. When you say that, it’s crazy to even think about,” Scherzer said. “It’s hard to really appreciate something like that.”
And that his 3,000th strikeout came against the Padres was telling. Scherzer has faced the Padres four times this season. As he put it postgame, he knows them, and they know him. Scherzer hadn’t faced anyone on the Padres more than first baseman Eric Hosmer, who had seen him 52 times entering the fifth inning of Sunday’s game.
But if Hosmer hoped to benefit from familiarity, he didn’t, succumbing to a change-up and becoming Scherzer’s 3,000th strikeout. What makes Scherzer so good, so relentless, is his ability to dominate the hitters who know him best. To a man, opponents say Scherzer keeps them guessing, unable to sit on just one or even two pitches. His arsenal is consistent and diverse, every delivery a potential swing-and-miss pitch if he throws it as he wants to. And his preparation is as endless as his belief that he can outsmart just about any hitter if he studies him enough.
“These are the battles,” Scherzer said later. “This is when it gets tough because every little pitch matters and all the executions matter.”
Scherzer didn’t pump his fist or holler when Hosmer swung through it. He walked off the first base side of the mound as he does after every strikeout, beginning his familiar circle around the mound. Only when Scherzer returned to the rubber did he pause to tip his hat to the crowd. Then he stepped back on the rubber and readied for Tommy Pham. At that point, Scherzer hadn’t allowed a hit. He hadn’t allowed a walk. Something bigger — a chance at perfection — was in the works.
To be fair, something big already had happened. Scherzer is never one to merely meet a moment when he can make it unforgettable.
He entered the second inning needing five strikeouts to hit his mark. He began that inning by striking out Fernando Tatis Jr. on three classic Scherzerian pitches: fastball, curveball, wipeout slider. Twelve years and a month ago, Scherzer struck out Tatis’s father. Hosmer also swung through three straight offerings that inning. Pham did the same. Scherzer said afterward that he knew he had a shot at a nine-pitch inning going into Pham’s at-bat. He pitched to him accordingly.
“You want it,” he admitted afterward, chuckling, because major league pitchers are supposed to prioritize team success over personal milestones, but Scherzer somehow prioritizes both.
If Scherzer is remembered for anything, it may be that extra gear he found in the second inning and beyond Sunday, the one he seems to find just as everyone who knows him thinks they have seen it all. That was the third immaculate inning of his career, tied for the most in baseball history. The feat is so rare that only two other starters have done it three times. One of them is Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale. The other is Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax. And it was the third-most-stunning thing Scherzer did Sunday.
For 6½ seasons with the Nationals and now six or so weeks with the Dodgers, Scherzer has been synonymous with possibility — with history in the making, with the chance to see something special. Scherzer is immune to the mundane and meaningless, vaccinated against them by an obsession with winning, with dominating, with making every pitch exactly how he intended it. That obsession translates to everything he does, from playing catch on the beach in the offseason to running in the outfield before any of his teammates emerge before games.
“There’s a lot of guys that are talented that can’t withstand the test of time. What he does in the offseason, in between starts, it doesn’t just happen by chance, the longevity and the success,” Roberts said.
What separates Scherzer is that he never stops gunning for the other guy, either. In a fitting summation of his mind-set, Scherzer reported this past week that after working on it for almost a decade, he is “finally” finding consistency with his curveball. This is who Scherzer is: unable to sit still, unable to be happy with what he has — determined, if not desperate, to do even more.
“Keep dreaming up new things to be able to do,” Scherzer said Sunday, though even a thorough Scherzer brainstorming session may not come up with much to add to his to-do list beyond a perfect game.
Hosmer doubled with one out in the eighth to end Scherzer’s bid for perfection. But in all other ways, the day was perfect — beyond even Scherzer’s imagination. His three young children were at the ballpark and ran onto the field to greet him afterward. For all the things Scherzer planned to do in this game, for all the little moments he has made historic, he is no longer just writing this story for himself.
“Those are the moments you don’t even think about when you’re coming through this, having kids now,” Scherzer said. “Hopefully they’ll remember this some day.”