Even in this record-setting era for strikeouts in baseball, the 300 mark remains a rarely achieved gold standard reserved only for the sport’s very best pitchers.
Only six major leaguers have reached the big number since 1990, and they need no qualifiers added before their names to be recognized as the best of the best: Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale.
And now, Max Scherzer.
Scherzer, whose career accomplishments already have set him on a path in the general direction of Cooperstown, checked off yet another all-important box on his resume tonight. With 10 strikeouts over seven sterling innings to lead the Nationals to a 9-4 win over the Marlins, he reached the 300 plateau for the first time, offering Washington fans something worth celebrating at the end of a season that has not offered enough reasons for such cheer.
“It was something I dreamed of, reaching this mark,” the right-hander said. “Because I know how hard it is to consistently go out there and strike guys out.”
The milestone whiff came in top of the seventh, on the 10th pitch of a prolonged at-bat by rookie Austin Dean that had the crowd of 26,483 standing, pleading, groaning and finally roaring every step of the way.
“I didn’t realize it was his 300th strikeout until everybody was up in the stands cheering,” Dean told reporters. “I was like: What’s going on? I’ll be on TV for the next couple of years.”
Scherzer finally got Dean with a 3-2 slider, and as he paced around the back of the mound the fans, the players in the dugout and bullpen all applauded and raised their arms in a sustained celebration that kept going even after the right-hander tipped his cap and retook his place atop the rubber.
“I definitely wanted to do it here at home,” he said. “The fans, unbelievable support. When they are standing on their feet, going crazy, it just gives you an extra adrenaline boost, and you just want to go out there and accomplish that. It was an amazing feeling to have the fans behind you, and the respect that they gave.”
That Scherzer did it tonight, in his final home start of the season, felt inevitable. And yet, it’s nearly as simple as he made it look. He needed all 10 of those strikeouts tonight to get to 300, and for most pitchers that’s far from a given.
Scherzer, though, now has 18 double-digit strikeout games in 33 starts this year, a stunning rate of consistency. Then consider that he did it without issuing any walks for the fifth time this season, the 21st time in his career.
The only pitchers in major league history with more 10-strikeout, zero-walk games? Johnson (36), Schilling (27) and Kershaw (22). Again, elite company.
“What an unbelievable accomplishment for him,” manager Davey Martinez said of the 300-strikeout milestone. “I’m just happy I got to experience it. I can’t say enough about Max. He’s a winner and a true champion.”
Scherzer’s teammates made life easier on him tonight, jumping out in front 3-0 only four batters into the bottom of the first thanks to two of their best table setters and then one of their best run producers.
Adam Eaton and Bryce Harper each drew walks off Marlins starter Jeff Brigham to set the stage. Anthony Rendon then made them count, blasting a three-run homer to left to continue his torrid late-season surge.
At that moment, Rendon had raised his home run total to 24, his RBI total to 90, his batting average to .309, his OPS to .910. Oh, he also extended his streak of consecutive games reaching base to 33.
Harper, meanwhile, scored his 100th run of the season on the homer, to go along with his 100 RBIs and 125 walks. The only other player in the majors this year to reach triple digits in all three categories: Cleveland’s José Ramírez.
And none of this includes the Nationals’ six-run seventh, which featured another Harper walk (intentional), another Rendon RBI double, and two-run singles by Eaton and Ryan Zimmerman.
With a comfortable lead in hand, everything else was up to Scherzer. And he was up to the challenge. He retired the side in the first, striking out one. He retired the side in the second, striking out two. The Marlins finally got a hit, then a run in the top of the fourth via Miguel Rojas’ single and Brian Anderson’s bloop double to left, but that was the extent of their sustained offensive attack against Scherzer.
Scherzer walked off the mound at the end of this fifth with his season strikeout total at 297. He walked off the mound at the end of the sixth at 298. And when he struck out Lewis Brinson to lead off the seventh, the crowd rose and pleaded with the ace for just one more.
And there was no question he was going to be allowed to stay on the mound tonight until he did it.
As Martinez succinctly put it: “I value my life.”
Scherzer, of course, delivered. This may not have been the date anyone wanted him to make his final appearance of 2018 on South Capitol Street, but at least he gave them all one more thrill before they see him again in six months. And added one more remarkable achievement to a list that already ranked among the best in modern pitching history.
“It takes time to fully appreciate any milestone or accomplishment, so I’ll best be able to answer that question maybe next year,” he said. “Understanding that it is a short list, but it doesn’t necessarily define you as a pitcher. There’s more to pitching than just striking guys out. But also it is a big reason why you can have success. That’s why it’s a cool milestone.”