When 35,695 fans are standing on every two-strike pitch, when Max Scherzer has that half-strut, half-stalk going across the infield and up the back of the mound to fire yet another 97-mph fastball directly through a bat, spending nearly $400 million to secure a pair of pitchers suddenly doesn’t seem like such a risky deal after all.
Think about the potential dynamic that might be created at Nationals Park. Hey, Stephen Strasburg, you just signed a $175 million extension to stay here in Washington? Well I’m Max Scherzer, and you want to know why I’m worth $35 million more than you?
Here’s why: Scherzer on Wednesday night matched a major league record with 20 strikeouts, obliterating his former team, the Detroit Tigers, in what was a clinic not just in pitching, but in both showmanship and one-upsmanship.
The people who showed up for the Bryce Harper bobbleheads? They were reminded what it means when Scherzer takes the mound, focused and fearsome.
“On any given night,” Harper said, “he can go out there and do something special.”
So add this 3-2 victory to Scherzer’s growing résumé of put-it-on-the-mantle moments. Last June , he threw a no-hitter against Pittsburgh that was a two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth hit batsman away from being a perfect game. Last October, he followed it up with another no-hitter, this against the New York Mets, in which he struck out 17.
And now this, an ode to efficiency. In an era when some pitchers visibly tire after 96 pitches, Scherzer threw 96 for strikes.
Think about that a second. Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants dialed up 96 strikes in his 2013 no-hitter against San Diego, the most recent pitcher to throw that many. He needed 148 pitches to do it. Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers slung 96 strikes that same year against the Nats in 82/3 innings. He needed 132 pitches. Justin Verlander, back in 2012 — when he was teammates with Scherzer on the Tigers — also dealt 96 strikes against the Yankees. He, too, needed 132 pitches.
This was Scherzer Wednesday night: 96 strikes in 119 pitches . No one, in the history of the game, has thrown so many strikes in so few pitches, according to baseball-reference.com. The previous “record,” if it can be termed such a thing, would be from Roy Oswalt, when he pitched for Houston and needed 125 pitches to throw 98 strikes in a shutout of Milwaukee in 2001.
So this was everything — history on the face of it, for sure, because that “20” under the “K” category in the box score has been matched just four other times in nine innings. But also in difficult-to-capture ways. Yes, his start was marred by solo homers to Jose Iglesias and J.D. Martinez. But forget all those frustrating nights, screaming at the TV, pleading with a pitcher to throw strike one. Scherzer faced 33 hitters Wednesday. He started 24 of them with a strike.
Here it is. Try to hit it.
“To me, he had better stuff tonight than he did in either no-hitter,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
It is a measure of the command needed to accomplish this that Scherzer walked no one. Strikeout pitchers are supposed to be wild, right? Throwing the ball at that velocity must compromise control.
But the three pitchers who have now authored 20-strikeout performances over nine innings — Boston’s Roger Clemens, first in 1986 and then in 1996 , then Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs in 1998 and now Scherzer — have combined for, get this, zero (0) walks.
Dusty Baker is 66. He played in 2,039 major league games. He managed his 3,210th Wednesday night.
“That was the best performance I’ve seen in person,” Baker said, succinctly and confidently.
It was, then, a night to recognize and celebrate history. But there’s an important, more focused view here too. Scherzer entered this game with a 4.60 ERA. In his last start, he allowed four homers to the Cubs. He was, quite honestly, searching for a better version of himself.
The Tigers helped him find it, in part because he was admittedly amped to face his old mates. And that is Scherzer’s personality: amped brings that strut. Amped, in such situations, brings performance.
“When he’s not predictable, he’s very, very difficult to hit,” Rizzo said. “That’s what it was. When he’s mixing and matching, and he’s not worried about the fourth time through the lineup the first time through the lineup. . . . ”
It is part of Scherzer’s standard for himself, that he’s going to pitch deep into games. Yet he must realize he can’t strike out 20 before you strike out one.
“He sometimes thinks, ‘How do I get through eight or nine in the first and second?’ ” Rizzo said.
“And all of a sudden he’s going, ‘I’m going to show them my fastball the first time through, and then I’m going to show them my other stuff.’ ”
Wednesday, he showed them all of it in every inning. And so, here we are, with both Scherzer and Strasburg in the same town. The former is in just the second year of his seven-year, $210 million contract. The latter doesn’t start his new deal till next season. There may be worries about how all this looks in, say, 2020.
But for another night, at least, Max Scherzer put aside any risk and the angst, and etched his name in a place from which it can’t be removed.