For Max Scherzer, a performance to top them all

Max Scherzer has thrown two no-hitters. He has come within one oh-so-errant pitch of a perfect game. He has won a pennant clincher. He has started a game in the World Series.

All significant achievements for any pitcher, but all things that have been achieved by more than a handful of hurlers over the course of baseball history.

That’s why tonight meant so much to Scherzer. And it’s why what the right-hander did, striking out 20 batters during the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Tigers, likely will be remembered by baseball fans in Washington and everywhere else more than anything else he has done in his already-stellar career to date.

“I mean, the strikeouts are sexy,” Scherzer said. “And to be able to punch out 20, it’s sexy.”

It’s probably safe to say Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Kerry Wood have never described their 20-strikeout performances in quite those same terms, but that ultra-exclusive club now must clear some room for a fourth member. In the history of baseball, no one else has ever struck out 20 batters in nine innings.

max-scherzer-pitching-20-strikeouts-sidebar.pngAnd Scherzer now stands alongside them.

“That’s some serious company,” he said. “It won’t sink in right now, but it’s an amazing accomplishment.”

And in some ways, it came out of the blue. For all his success since joining the Nationals last season, Scherzer has also hit a few bumps in the road. And perhaps the biggest one came only five days ago, when he allowed four home runs in a loss to the Cubs, leaving him with an inflated ERA of 4.60 and leaving the Nationals and their fans with feelings of unease when he took the mound tonight.

This wasn’t even supposed to be Scherzer’s night in the spotlight. That was supposed to be reserved for Jordan Zimmermann, making his return to South Capitol Street after seven splendid seasons in a Washington uniform that included his own no-hitter.

The crowd of 35,695, boosted by the Bryce Harper MVP bobbleheads given away upon entrance, focused its early attention on Zimmermann, giving the Detroit right-hander several ovations, including one that coerced him into doffing his helmet as he stepped out of the batter’s box.

But the focus quickly shifted to the man who used to pitch for the Tigers and now pitches for the Nationals, not the other way around. Scherzer was electric from the outset, striking out both J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera in the top of the first on 97 mph fastballs that convinced teammates something special could be in store on this night.

“The first inning, I ran in and I said to (Jayson Werth): ‘That’s Max,’ ” Harper said. “That’s the guy that goes out there and competes and goes about it and he’s an animal out there. He gets on the mound and goes. Those are the nights it’s fun to watch him pitch.”

Scherzer never let up. He recorded nine consecutive outs via strikes from the first into the fourth inning. His fastball consistently hit 96-97 mph, and more importantly hit its spots. His slider, typically 88 mph, produced more swings and misses. His changeup proved effective as well to notch a couple of his punchouts.

This was Scherzer in complete control. To wit: He threw 96 of his 119 pitches for strikes, the most by any major leaguer since 2013. He did not walk a batter, and in fact only threw 23 total balls. In a game he struck out 20.

“The aggressiveness he showed out there on the mound, he kept attacking the zone despite the Tigers having a very impressive offensive lineup,” catcher Wilson Ramos said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “He just kept attacking, and that’s what made him so good tonight.”

It may not have been coincidence Scherzer put it all together like this on this particular night, given the opponent. He admitted some extra motivation facing his former teammates, a lineup featuring such feared hitters as Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton.

“Tonight was an emotional game, facing a former team and all those guys I have so much respect for and how they play the game and how they compete,” said Scherzer, who pitched for Detroit from 2010-14. “I really think the world how they go out there and play the game. And so to have a game like this against that caliber of hitters on their side, that really puts a feather in my cap because I really respect and really admire how they go about the game.”

As the night wore on and the K’s kept piling up on the scoreboard, the magnitude of the moment began to hit everyone. Most in uniform didn’t know exactly how many strikeouts Scherzer had until he punched out the side in the top of the eighth to raise his total to 18.

Of course, the outcome of the game was still in question, the Nationals leading 3-1 at that point, with the heart of the Tigers lineup due up in the ninth. Manager Dusty Baker had closer Jonathan Papelbon warming up just in case, but that was purely a last-resort option, given the record in reach.

“I knew there was a lot, but then they put it up on the board, and I was like: ‘Aw, no,’ ” Baker said. “At that point in time, how often do you have a chance to make history like that?”

Max-Scherzer-Gatorade-20-strikeouts-sidebar.jpgScherzer’s first pitch in the ninth, a slider to J.D. Martinez, left the crowd gasping as it soared to left field for a home run that suddenly trimmed the lead to 3-2. He buckled down after that, though, striking out former American League MVP Cabrera for the third time in the game, giving him 19.

With the crowd roaring in anticipation, Victor Martinez poked a one-out single to left, adding more drama to the scene. No worries, though, because Scherzer proceeded to strike out Upton on three pitches, the last a slider, to secure his place in history alongside Clemens (who struck out 20 twice in his career), Johnson and Wood.

“Twenty is just an unbelievable number,” he said. “There’s something about 20 in the game: 20 strikeouts, 20 wins, those are huge numbers. To be able to go out there tonight and be able to accomplish one of those, that’s a huge feat.”

There was, however, and even rarer feat now in sight. The only man in history to strike out 21 batters in a single game was Senators right-hander Tom Cheney, who did it against the Orioles in 1962, albeit in a 16-inning start.

When Scherzer got a first-pitch strike in on James McCann, he started thinking ahead.

“It crossed my mind,” he said. “I remember thinking in that 0-1 count: If I get this slider ... I was thinking of all the different things, scenarios in an 0-2 count, what I could do.”

Scherzer never got to the 0-2 count. McCann hacked at the 0-1 pitch, sending a routine grounder to third. Anthony Rendon fielded it, threw to Daniel Murphy at second base for the game-ending force out and then joined in the celebration in the middle of the diamond.

Scherzer’s final thoughts as his teammates descended upon him?

“We won, and there’s 20 punchouts,” he said. “That’s an unbelievable feat. The win was the most important thing. Especially being able to get a complete game, that’s an accomplishment.

“And then, like I said, the strikeouts are sexy, and that makes it special.”

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