When his pitching days are over and the countdown to Cooperstown begins, Max Scherzer will look back at a handful of starts that defined his career. He’ll remember the two no-hitters. He’ll remember the 20-strikeout game. He’ll remember the time he became the first major leaguer in three decades to begin a season 13-0.
And he’ll remember “The Black Eye Game,” the game in which the right-hander took the mound with a huge shiner surrounding his right eye after he broke his nose during a bunting drill the previous afternoon and proceeded to shut out the Phillies over seven innings, sweep a doubleheader and help lift the Nationals back into a pennant race.
“It really is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a while,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “We were talking about it just a little while ago: He’s probably the best pitcher of our generation, and you don’t get that status unless you take the ball every fifth day. If you’re doing good, you’re doing bad, you’ve got a broken nose, you always want the ball.”
With a gutsy, 117-pitch performance on a muggy Wednesday evening in which his team left him zero margin for error, Scherzer authored the latest memorable chapter in a pitching career that already was filled with them. His efforts carried the Nationals to a much-needed, 2-0 victory on the heels of a 6-2 win in this afternoon’s matinee, a sweep that brings them to within four games of the Phillies for second place in the National League East.
Whether the Nats - at 35-38 back to three games under .500 for the first time since they were 12-15 in late April - ultimately finish off this furious in-season rally remains to be seen. But no matter the end result, they’ll always have this night and this performance by their ace.
“Awesome,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Max is Max. He went out there and did what he’s supposed to do.”
Yes, this is what he’s supposed to do, but he’s not supposed to do it looking the way he did tonight.
Because he didn’t report to the ballpark until late afternoon - as a starting pitcher normally does for a 7:05 p.m. game - Scherzer hadn’t been seen publicly since Tuesday’s batting-practice incident. Teammates cautioned reporters that the ace had a significant “shiner” on his right eye, but it wasn’t until he headed out to the bullpen around 6:30 p.m. that everyone finally got a glimpse of it.
And what a sight it was, a dark ring around his right eye - the blue one - to go along with another dark splotch below the eye, a crease across the top of his nose and the usual gameday stubble.
“I was kind of joking with him: ‘Oh, you’re throwing today?’” Dozier said. “He kind of gave me a little ‘Go to hell’ look. ‘Of course I’m throwing today. What do you mean?’”
In Scherzer’s mind, there was never a doubt.
“Never,” he said. “Even when it happened, I was joking with (director of athletic training Paul Lessard): If this happened in a game, I’d still want to pitch.”
If Schezer is to believed, it wasn’t much of a physical challenge to take the mound tonight and do what he did.
“On a scale of 1-to-10, my pain today was a zero,” he said. “Going out there and throwing, the only thing I had to deal with was the swelling under the eye. It was kind of jiggling around. So in the warmups, I just had to get used to knowing what I was feeling when I was throwing the ball and having that swelling jiggling around. Once I warmed up, understood what I was dealing with, wasn’t dealing with any pain. By the time I actually stepped on the mound, I was fine.”
To the Phillies, the mere sight of Scherzer was intimidating enough. And then he burst out of the gate firing on all cylinders. His fastball averaged 96.2 mph; he hasn’t thrown harder in a game since 2012. He wound up reaching 98 mph on several occasions, as hard as he has thrown all season.
“Not because of the injury,” he said of his velocity increase. “It was nice and humid tonight. The weather was the reason why I was throwing hard.”
Scherzer’s velocity may have been in peak form early on, but his command was not. He didn’t get many quick outs, and that led to a higher-than-ideal pitch count. Three innings down, he already had thrown 52 pitches, and at this point six innings appeared to be his limit for the evening.
But then he buckled down and started mowing through the Phillies lineup with more ease. He struck out four consecutive batters during a stretch in the fourth and fifth innings, and now he was back on a more manageable pace.
And when Scherzer returned to the dugout at the end of the sixth, his pitch count at 97 and his spot in the lineup set to lead off the bottom of the inning, nobody tried to tell him he was done for the night.
“In that particular moment in the game, he’s the guy you want out there,” Martinez said. “I didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to look at him. He didn’t look in the dugout. I just said it’s his game, and he did what he needed to do.”
The Nationals led only 1-0, that one run having come way back in the bottom of the second when Dozier lofted a ball down the left field line and just far enough to land in the flower bed atop the wall. It was Dozier’s second home run of the day, and it would loom large all night long.
Jake Arrieta allowed nothing else the rest of the way, coasting through his six innings on 85 pitches with only one other hit surrendered. And so it was up to Scherzer to get through the seventh unscathed before handing the game over to his bullpen.
César Hernández started the inning off with a bang, ripping a double off the wall in right-center. But then Scherzer decided he was done messing around. He blew away Brad Miller with a 98 mph fastball. He blew away Andrew Knapp with a 97 mph fastball. And then he finished off J.T. Realmuto with an 86 mph slider, pounding his glove as he stomped off the mound to a standing ovation.
“The last 15 pitches of your outing typically determine how your outing goes,” he said. “And tonight, César was able to lead off with the double and you get backed into a corner there, in a tight spot. They had a couple lefties coming up and I was able to execute some pitches there to get some big strikeouts when we needed them.”
And just when some out there were nervous the Nationals bullpen would blow it and spoil the night, Wander Suero retired the top of the Phillies order in the eighth and Sean Doolittle - given an insurance run on Victor Robles’ solo homer - closed it out in the ninth to make sure this night would forever be remembered fondly by everyone inside this ballpark or watching on TV.
Everyone, of course, but the man who was most responsible for making the memory.
“Trust me, this thing looks a lot worse than it is,” he said. “I felt zero pain. There’s been a lot of injuries where I was in a lot of pain and had to pitch through it. I’ll hang my head on those starts. Tonight I had zero pain. This is just part of what you’ve got to do. You take the ball every fifth time. That’s my responsibility to my team to make sure I always post. And I knew I could post tonight. It’s just going out there and doing my job.”