- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The sold-out crowd at Nationals Park on Saturday afternoon was roaring when Max Scherzer struck out opposing Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano in what had been a 1-0 pitching duel. The Washington Nationals led thanks to a solo home run by Bryce Harper.

After what Scherzer had done in his last start — 16 strikeouts in a one-hit, 4-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers last Sunday — Nationals fans sensed they were on the brink of perhaps seeing something historic.

They kept roaring in the bottom of the seventh when Washington scored four runs on RBI singles by Anthony Rendon and Harper, and a two-run single by Tyler Moore to give the Nationals a 5-0 lead, because they knew then the game had gone from a pitching duel to their pitcher’s memorable performance.

Scherzer knew the same thing, sitting in the Nationals‘ clubhouse, regaining his strength after pitching six innings in the oppressive heat and humidity, cooling down but on the brink of heating up.

“Guys kept going up to the plate and doing their job,” Scherzer said. “It felt like that helped gave me a break — give me some time to recuperate, sit in the clubhouse in the air conditioning. Then I felt strong. I felt like I could get out there and come with my best fastball the last three innings.”


SEE ALSO: Max Scherzer throws no-hitter as Nationals beat Pirates, 6-0


He changed his jersey — Scherzer changed jerseys seven times on Saturday — went back on the mound and threw his best fastball for three innings. Like the first six innings, the Pirates couldn’t hit it.

Scherzer, the 30-year-old 2013 Cy Young winner in Detroit and $210 million free agent right-handed ace Washington signed this winter, walked off the mound after left fielder Michael A. Taylor pulled in Josh Harrison’s fly ball to seal his first no-hitter in a 6-0 win over the Pirates, who arrived in Washington as one of the hottest teams in baseball.

It was the second no-hitter in the Nationals‘ 10 years in Washington, following Jordan Zimmermann’s historic performance against the Miami Marlins last September, and the fourth no-hitter in Washington baseball history.

“What a great day — great game, great crowd,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “There were 41,000 people on their feet from the time he went out in the ninth. That’s a very good feeling for our club. Maxie was fantastic — all day.”

The only disappointment was what could have been.

Scherzer was one out away in the ninth inning from a perfect game when Pittsburgh pinch-hitter Jose Tabata was hit on the elbow by a 2-2 pitch and became the first Pirates baserunner.

The fiery Nationals pitcher circled around the mound, stepped back on the rubber, put it behind him and got Harrison to hit a fly ball to nail down the no-hitter.

“It took two seconds,” Scherzer said. “I realized I lost the perfect game, and you just move on. Let’s finish this thing out.”

As the crowd celebrated in the stands, catcher Wilson Ramos ran out to hug Scherzer. His teammates followed.

Of course, Scherzer — who started the practice of dousing dramatic game-winning Nationals players with chocolate sauce — was drenched with six bottles of the stuff, along with a Gatorade bath.

“Cloud nine, when you can celebrate with your teammates, nothing better,” Scherzer said. “Dumping the Gatorade, six bottles of chocolate syrup over me, that is a great feeling. Shows you how much fun we are having as a team.”

There were questions about how close he came to the perfect game, and whether Tabata leaned into the pitch purposely to reach base. In the clubhouse, Nationals coaches believed he did, but Williams chose not to make an issue of it with home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski.

“That’s irrelevant at this point,” Williams said. “The last thing I’m going to do at that point is walk on the field and mess up Maxie’s rhythm. I think that would be a crying shame. I ain’t doing that.”

Getting hit by a pitch may be the only way to get on base against Scherzer. Of the last 56 batters Scherzer has faced in his last two starts, only two have made it to first.

“Every time Max takes the mound, he has a game plan and a way to get them out, and he just exercised that again today,” Williams said. “We’ve seen it in the last two starts especially.”

The game plan for hitters facing Scherzer right now? Take a 97-mph fastball to the body.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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