Twenty wins means different things to different people. And its meaning has changed significantly throughout the course of baseball history, with most around the sport now fully acknowledging how many better ways there are to evaluate a pitcher’s season than mere wins and losses that are so dependent on the performances of others.
But 20 wins does still mean something to those who wear the uniform. And if you doubt that, just go back and watch the reactions in the Nationals dugout during each of Max Scherzer’s last two starts, after his teammates took the lead to put their ace in line to earn his 19th and 20th wins.
Scherzer, most of all, recognizes that his win total - which he officially achieved today after the Nationals held off the Marlins 10-7 in their regular season finale - reflects not only his individual performance but all those around him over the last six months.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “And honestly, it’s such a team accomplishment. These guys absolutely supported me the whole year, playing defense, going out there and scoring runs, and our bullpen coming in and shutting the door. I don’t win 20 without the rest of these guys in the clubhouse. They’ve been grinding the whole year for me. It’s just an unbelievable honor.”
Scherzer finished as the only 20-game winner in the National League this year. His 2.96 ERA, which went up a few ticks during his five-inning start, ranked eighth in the league. But he dominated a host of other categories, besting the field in innings (228 1/3), strikeouts (284), WHIP (0.97), opponents’ batting average (.199) and, for the sabermetrically inclined, WAR (6.5).
Will that all add up to the second Cy Young Award of Scherzer’s career, his first in Washington? The Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13) and Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44) each have compelling cases. Votes will be submitted before the postseason begins Tuesday but won’t be announced until mid-November.
There’s no debate within the Nationals clubhouse where Scherzer ranks among his peers.
“At the top,” shortstop Danny Espinosa said. “I don’t know who is in the running for the Cy Young, but the strikeouts and the wins ... he’s a guy when he’s pitching and we’re scoring runs, he shuts it down. And we give him a lead, and it’s kind of game over.”
Scherzer wasn’t at his very best today. He surrendered a pair of two-run homers to rookies (Destin Hood and Tomas Telis) and departed after only five innings, his pitch count at 96.
But he didn’t rely solely on teammates to win the game. Scherzer delivered at the plate himself, twice sending two-run singles up the middle to elicit roars from the crowd of 28,730.
He never had a four-RBI game in the big leagues before, and no Nationals pitcher ever had, either. So when’s the last time Scherzer did that at any level?
“I’m sure in high school I did,” he said. “I was a pretty good high school hitter, but that’s where I topped out.”
Scherzer showed plenty of emotion each time he rounded first today, and he plans to show plenty more emotion when he next takes the mound: Friday against Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
This is why the Nationals signed the right-hander in the first place, why they were willing to give him a seven-year, $210 million contract even when they already had other ace-caliber pitchers on their staff. This was the guy Mike Rizzo wanted to give the ball to for Game 1 of the playoffs ... and ideally several more times before October comes to an end.
Scherzer has been here before. He has made 10 career postseason starts, plus two more relief appearances, and he understands how best to channel the emotions that stir up when he takes the mound for these kind of games.
“See, that’s the notion: Hey, this is going to be a big moment, dial it back,” he said. “And I tried doing that making my first playoff start, going out in New York against the Yankees (in 2011) and tried to dial it back. And I walked three in the first inning. Two or three. It doesn’t work.
“You’ve got to use the adrenaline and use the emotion of the game to your advantage. You’ve got to go out there and be aggressive and appreciate everything that’s going on. You don’t shy away from this moment. You’ve got to rise to it. And you’ve got to let the atmosphere take you there as well. I’m happy that we have home field advantage and have the home crowd behind me. It’s going to be a heck of an experience.”