When the history was made, the 300th strikeout recorded, and the team toast complete, Max Scherzer walked around an otherwise dry clubhouse with a bottle of champagne in his hand, sipping at intervals in celebration as clubhouse music played.
This isn’t the champagne celebration anyone thought the Washington Nationals would be having at this time of year. Ideally, everyone would have a bottle of something to pour over one another, and plastic would be covering lockers and the floor. This celebration was muted, different, and personal — more reverent than jubilant, more a sigh of relief than a cry of joy.
In the seventh inning of Tuesday night’s 9-4 win over the Miami Marlins, Scherzer became the sixth pitcher since 1990 to record 300 strikeouts in a season, joining Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale. The last pitcher to hit it while pitching in D.C. was Walter Johnson, and he did it in 1912. And after a season in which Jacob deGrom might win the Cy Young Award, after his efforts to lift his team out of its haze and into the playoffs failed, Scherzer wanted this one.
“It was on my mind. With enough guys talking about it, understanding what the milestone is,” Scherzer said. “And I definitely wanted to do it here at home.”
The Nationals won the game, an offensive explosion that gave Scherzer his 18th victory. Anthony Rendon homered and moved his average to .312. Bryce Harper became the season’s first National League player to score 100 runs to go with 100 RBI and 100 walks. That duo combined to reach eight times in eight plate appearances.
But Tuesday night belonged to Scherzer. He entered the start 10 strikeouts shy of 300, so determined to reach the mark that the Nationals lined him up to pitch on the last day of the season in case he needed one more outing. His manager, Dave Martinez, said he hadn’t talked to Scherzer about whether he still wanted to pitch that game. He wanted Scherzer to enjoy that champagne.
For most pitchers, planning to strike out 10 batters in one night to chase down a record would feel ludicrous, but Scherzer has hit double digits more often than he hasn’t this season. He struck out exactly 10 Tuesday and did not walk a batter, the 21st time in his career he has done that. Only Johnson, Kershaw and Schilling have done that more in their careers, and Scherzer is not far behind.
His 291st strikeout of the season sent down Marlins leadoff man JT Riddle on three pitches. Strikeouts 292 to 294 came over the first three innings, on fastballs, sliders, and a change-up, the classic Scherzer combination.
He lacked fastball command early, which meant he didn’t get into “kill counts” — his term for two-strike counts — as much as he might have preferred. But Scherzer can manufacture kill counts out of hitter’s counts, as he did vs. victim No. 295, Peter O’Brien, against whom he charged back after falling behind 2-0. Lewis Brinson became his 296th strikeout when he missed a 97-mph fastball.
The 34-year-old won’t say so publicly, but he has felt the weight of this team’s inconsistencies — and the pressure of smoothing them — all season. At one point in late April, Scherzer provided the only two Nationals wins in a nine-game period. With Stephen Strasburg injured and Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark inconsistent, wanting to go at least seven innings transformed into having to go at least seven innings to spare an exhausted bullpen. He pitched into the seventh inning in 21 of 34 starts, and at least six innings in 30 of 34.
On Tuesday, Scherzer finished the sixth on 84 pitches, two strikeouts away. At that point, anyone who knows Scherzer would have bet good money he would not hand the ball to Martinez until he struck out two more. Martinez knew better than to try to take it.
“I value my life,” Martinez said.
Scherzer struck out Brinson, again on a 97-mph fastball, to start the seventh inning. He wasn’t going to tire. That left him one strikeout shy. By that time, catcher Matt Wieters admitted later, he had long been trying to navigate Scherzer to the milestone. He started doing so a few weeks ago.
“To be honest with you, when he’s sitting at 260, 270 with three or four starts yet, you kind of know it’s a possibility, and 300 is a big number when you’re talking about strikeouts,” Wieters said. “He will never admit that’s what he was going for, but I’ll admit that’s what I started trying to do.”
That Wieters wanted to help Scherzer, that his coaches planned around him, reveals that reverence he has earned in the clubhouse, with a work ethic no one can match.
“What an unbelievable accomplishment for him. I’m just happy I got to experience it,” Martinez said. “I can’t say enough about Max. He’s a winner and a true champion.”
And unlike those games in which he didn’t get enough run support, or the four days out of five he can’t pitch but paces the dugout agitatedly trying to help, when Scherzer got two strikes on Austin Dean in the seventh, he was finally in control. He could decide when to give in, and when to win.
Dean pushed him to eight pitches, then to nine, then to 10, engaging Scherzer in the kind of battle that seems to ignite him somehow. The crowd still stood, chanting “Let’s Go Max!” He is a one-namer here now, like “Bryce” and “Ovechkin.”
On the 11th pitch of the at-bat, Dean swung through a slider and Scherzer pumped his fist. The bullpen leaped to its feet. The dugout came to the top step. And Scherzer, who never lets anything interrupt his post-out march around the mound — a routine he honed to keep his edge in every situation, to stay focused in every circumstance — came back to the mound, heard the crowd, and broke that routine. The man so reluctant to admit defeat stepped back to do something even more out of character.
He paused, stepped back off the mound, and admitted achievement with a few quick waves to a crowd that would not let him continue until he did. By that time, he had earned a break. By the time he waved them off, then waved to them again, the two-time reigning Cy Young Award winner had given the Nationals everything he could. They gave Scherzer a toast and a bottle of champagne. They all would have preferred a different kind of champagne celebration. But for one night, no one seemed to mind that he was sipping it alone.