Strikeouts don’t sting batters’ egos in today’s all-or-nothing era like they used to, but Max Scherzer’s lust for them has not tapered. He believes pitching to contact is ridiculous. He doesn’t nibble around the strike zone wasting pitches. He relentlessly challenges hitters with dynamite precision and controlled rage, and he has always done it that way because he has always wanted strikeouts. He is the perfect pitcher for this age, a hurler with the stuff to stockpile strikeouts without the excess fat and pitch deep into ballgames.
And when he is clicking, a ruthless efficiency surfaces — never more ruthless and efficient than his immaculate sixth inning in the Washington Nationals’ 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.
The perfection began with a slider for a called strike against Johnny Field, who had doubled for the Rays’ first hit in his previous at-bat. Scherzer, taking no chances, finished him off with whiffs on a slider and a change-up. Next up was poor Christian Arroyo, tasked to pinch-hit against a revved-up hacksaw. Fastball looking, fastball swinging, change-up swinging. Strikeout. Two outs.
That brought up Daniel Robertson, Tampa Bay’s leadoff hitter and on-base-percentage leader. Robertson put up a valiant fight, fouling back a fastball, but that made it 0-2 and Scherzer wasn’t about to let him escape. He challenged Robertson with a 96-mph fastball. Robertson swung through it for strike three, giving Scherzer his second career nine-pitch, three-strikeout inning. The only other pitchers in baseball history known to have completed two such innings are Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. All are in the Hall of Fame. Scherzer continues building his case to join them.
“I honestly didn’t know it happened,” Scherzer said. “Then I walked off the field and I was like, ‘Wait a second, I think that was it.’ So, yeah, that’s cool.”
The two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner would stumble in the eighth, allowing a two-out, two-run double to pinch hitter Brad Miller, but he got out of the inning with three more strikeouts to finish with 13 while walking none. It was his 10th double-digit strikeout total in 13 starts this season and the 73rd of his career. He threw 99 pitches, 18 for balls, and logged first-pitch strikes to 25 of the 28 batters he faced before Sean Doolittle tossed a perfect ninth as the Nationals improved to 34-25.
Scherzer, baseball’s strikeout leader, said he woke up with a bounce in his step after riling up Capitals fans before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals on Monday, and he displayed his genius for the world again. But he wasn’t completely satisfied. In his first plate appearance since his pinch-hit single and run beat the Atlanta Braves in the 14th inning Saturday, Scherzer failed to drop down a bunt with a runner at third base in the second inning and was peeved. He prides himself on his bunting and vowed to improve.
“He’s a special dude, that’s for sure,” Nationals first baseman Matt Adams said.
Rays right-hander Nathan Eovaldi was making his second start since returning from a second Tommy John surgery after tossing six no-hit innings in his first. He extended the streak to seven with a perfect first inning Tuesday before Adams crushed a 97-mph fastball to lead off the second. It was Adams’s 13th home run, and it dispeled any possible lingering concerns about his right foot after he fouled a ball off it Saturday.
Juan Soto and Michael A. Taylor each followed with a single to put runners on the corners for Wilmer Difo, whose fielder’s choice scored Soto. Difo and Soto connected for another run in the fourth, when Soto, after falling behind 0-2 in the count, worked a seven-pitch leadoff walk. Two batters later, Difo smacked a triple to left field, driving in Soto from first base. Then, with Scherzer at the plate, Difo scampered home on a wild pitch, sliding headfirst just under the tag to make it 4-0.
The four-run cushion was abundant as Scherzer dissected a Rays lineup featuring seven right-handed hitters, including former Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, who returned to Washington for the first time since signing with the Rays after the 2016 season. The Nationals showed a video honoring Ramos and his seven seasons with the Nationals, complete with his old walk-up song — Phish’s “Wilson” — before the game. Ramos acknowledged the display from the visitors’ bullpen while warming up Eovaldi and was greeted with another ovation before his first plate appearance in the second inning.
Ramos went 0 for 3 against Scherzer but just missed homering on a curveball and was the only Rays starter who didn’t strike out against him. Perhaps familiarity spawned from catching Scherzer for two seasons helped. The rest of the Rays (28-31) could have used it. Scherzer entered Tuesday holding right-handed batters to a .148 batting average this season. His .198 career opponents’ batting average against right-handed hitters was fourth-best all-time. The last home run he has allowed to a right-handed hitter was to Giancarlo Stanton last August, back when Stanton was wasting his talents on the Miami Marlins on his way to an MVP season.
The Rays didn’t homer from either side, or collect many hits of any kind, against Scherzer on Tuesday. They were limited to five. Three came in that eighth inning, when Scherzer finally faltered. It prevented him from trying for his second complete game this season, but it was plenty dominant, ruthless and efficient enough.
“He’s the best,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “He really is.”