Max Scherzer retired the first 26 Pittsburgh Pirates in order. One remained, and pinch-hitter Jose Tabata was one strike away from becoming the final out of the first perfect game in Washington Nationals history Saturday. Tabata put up a fight. Scherzer threw an inside slider, but it didn’t break like normal. Instead, it grazed Tabata’s dropping elbow, and the frenzied Nationals Park crowd moaned. Scherzer took a long look to the sky, dropped his head, then called for the next ball and regrouped. “Took two seconds,” he said.
He threw three more pitches, the last — his 106th of a sweltering afternoon — inducing Josh Harrison to lift a soft flyball to left field. Michael A. Taylor settled under it for the final out of a 6-0 win. In a matter of moments, Scherzer lost his bid for perfection but notched the second no-hitter in Nationals history.
Scherzer threw up his hands, hugged catcher Wilson Ramos and was mobbed by his teammates in the infield.
“Cloud nine,” he said.
In his previous start, Scherzer came within inches of a no-hitter in Milwaukee, a broken-bat bloop single spoiling his bid. On Saturday, he joined teammate Jordan Zimmermann as the only pitchers to throw no-hitters in Nationals history.
“It was unbelievable,” said Bryce Harper, whose fourth-inning home run gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead. “He’s as good as advertised every time he goes out there. He’s made for greatness.”
Scherzer’s opponents are 1 for 55 with one walk and one hit-by-pitch against him over his past two starts with 26 strikeouts, 10 coming Saturday. In that span, he has more hits — two singles — than his opponents. Scherzer became the first player since Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves in 1944 to allow one hit or fewer in consecutive complete games.
“My last two starts, this is some of the best baseball I’ve thrown,” Scherzer said. “Best pitching I’ve done. I feel like I’m executing with all of my pitches.”
The errant slider to Tabata made Scherzer the first pitcher to lose a perfect game with a hit-by-pitch with two outs in the ninth inning since Hooks Wiltse in 1908. The Nationals did not argue the call. Manager Matt Williams said he didn’t consider stepping out of the dugout to talk to home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski because he didn’t want to mess with Scherzer’s rhythm. “That’d be a crying shame,” he said.
Ramos said Tabata’s elbow was in the strike zone. Watching from right field, Harper crouched down into a squat: “I wanted to cry,” he said.
“It got me in the elbow, the protector elbow,” Tabata said. “He try to throw me like a slider something inside, but the slider no breaking, so it stay in, right there, he got me.”
Scherzer blamed no one but himself for the pitch. He had Tabata backed into a corner with two strikes, but Tabata fouled off five pitches in the at-bat.
“Just didn’t finish the pitch,” Scherzer said. “Backed up on me and clipped him. It’s just one of those things that happened. Just focus on what you can do next.”
And for the entire game, Scherzer did just that. He knifed through the Pirates’ lineup with ease. Zimmermann threw a no-hitter on the final day of the regular season last year with a defense that changed nearly every inning. Scherzer got one of the Nationals’ best defensive alignments all game.
Because Yunel Escobar was scratched just before the game with a stomach bug, Anthony Rendon played his natural position of third base, Danny Espinosa was at second and Ian Desmond was at short. And Scherzer used his defense.
The Pirates made solid contact against him in the second inning, all long flyballs, but Harper, Denard Span and Taylor, who slammed against the left field wall, made running catches for outs. Few balls reached that far over the next seven innings. The first time through the order, the Pirates swung early. After that, Scherzer adjusted.
“It was just kind of the cat-and-mouse thing where I could recognize what they were doing,” he said.
Playing in his first game since injuring his hamstring Thursday, Harper boosted Scherzer, smashing a solo home run in the fourth inning to center field off Pirates starter Francisco Liriano, only the second home run he has allowed to a left-handed batter this season. Harper’s 23rd home run — in his 69th game — is a career high.
Scherzer may not have needed it, but the Nationals got him five more runs of support, four coming in the sixth. Span reached on a wild pitch, stole his eighth base and scored on Rendon’s double. Harper singled to score Rendon, and Tyler Moore’s two-run single chased Liriano.
As he did in between every inning, Scherzer watched from the air-conditioned clubhouse. He changed his undershirt nearly every inning. Despite the long half-inning in the sixth, he was sharp to start the seventh, getting three quick outs, including a strikeout of Andrew McCutchen with a wicked slider. Scherzer bounced off the mound, pumped his fist and jogged into the dugout while the 41,104 people in attendance cheered.
“It was pretty exhausting out there,” he said. “It was nice and hot and humid. Going through the first six innings was pretty tiring and exhausting, just mentally, but I just kept firing, pounding the zone.”
“I didn’t think they were going to touch anything he was throwing up there,” Harper said
With two outs in the eighth, the Nationals shifted far to the right against left-handed hitter Pedro Alvarez. Scherzer got Alvarez to hit a soft groundball that way. Rendon dived for the ball but couldn’t make the play. Espinosa, standing in shallow right field, ran to his right, scooped it up and fired a laser to first base to get Alvarez by a step. Near the first base line, Scherzer spun, pumped his fist and screamed.
“I knew I had to get rid of it quick,” Espinosa said.
Scherzer took the mound again in the ninth to a standing ovation. No one could sit for the final three outs. Gregory Polanco popped out to Rendon, who made the catch in foul territory at the railing of the Pirates’ dugout. Jordy Mercer flied out to Span.
And then came the only base runner on the 27th hitter Scherzer faced. Soon thereafter, Scherzer was bathed with six bottles of chocolate syrup by Zimmermann, Harper and Jayson Werth. It is a goofy tradition Scherzer started. His hat and jersey may be the first in Cooperstown with chocolate stains.
“That’s awesome,” Scherzer said. “Just shows you how much fun we’re having a team.”