- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Max Scherzer delivered first-inning pitches with a foreshadowing crackle. A 96-mph fastball struck out J.D. Martinez. A 97-mph fastball ended Miguel Cabrera’s first at-bat. It was clear that Scherzer, always internally electrified no matter the setting, had an extra beat in his pulse from the start.

For two days, he had chatted with his former teammates on the Detroit Tigers. They relayed to him a plan to hit “bombs” once the series finale arrived Wednesday night and Scherzer took the mound. Scherzer even had a mock nose-to-nose argument with Detroit first baseman Victor Martinez before Tigers batting practice on Tuesday afternoon.

History began to creep into the conversation midway through Wednesday’s game. Scherzer suddenly had 13 strikeouts after six innings, putting him on pace with former Chicago Cubs starter Kerry Wood, one of three men in Major League Baseball history to strikeout 20 in nine innings. By the ninth, when Scherzer returned to the mound with 18 strikeouts and a roar from fans, everyone knew how the extra emotion had influenced him. He would strikeout two more Tigers, delivering a stunning 20-strikeout performance in a 3-2 win against his former club.

“Strikeouts are sexy,” Scherzer said.

There are layers of history framing Scherzer becoming the fifth pitcher in history to have a 20-strikeout game and joining Wood, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens, the latter of which who did it twice, as the only pitchers to reach the robust number in nine innings.

First, Scherzer wouldn’t be in a situation for record-tying against friends had he not gambled on himself two seasons ago. He declined a $144 million contract extension offer from Detroit, where he had grown into a pitcher of stature during his five seasons with the Tigers. Instead, he landed $210 million from the Nationals, setting up an angst-filled outing Wednesday bestowed upon fans by the schedule makers. Scherzer was facing his former team. Detroit starter, Jordan Zimmermann, was as well.

Second, Scherzer is reaching into a territory where only Johnson resides. Since joining the Nationals, Scherzer has thrown two no-hitters and now has a 20-strikeout game. Johnson has thrown a no-hitter, perfect game and struck out 20 in nine innings. No one else in baseball history shares similar totals.

“That’s some serious company,” Scherzer said of being mentioned with Clemens and Johnson.

Scherzer took time to reflect after his last outing. The Chicago Cubs had hit four home runs off him, and Scherzer felt he had temporarily devolved into a predictable pitcher. On Wednesday night against the Tigers, Scherzer showed a diabolical level of adjustments. He struck out the 20 batters on 119 pitches, throwing 96 for strikes, starting hitters with untamable sliders, fastballs and curveballs.

Efficiency had escaped him thus far in 2016. It reached an absurd level Wednesday. After the sixth inning, Scherzer had 13 strikeouts, yet had only thrown 15 balls. By the end of the eighth, he had struck out 18 batters and delivered just 21 balls. That’s also when realizations of what was happening began to creep into minds on the field.

Scherzer knew he had a lot of strikeouts early in the game. After the eighth, when he had set a new personal high plus a Nationals organization record, he heard 18 strikeouts mentioned by the stadium announcer. He had thrown 106 pitches. Scherzer was aware the strikeout record was two away. Catcher Wilson Ramos decided to call the game more aggressively, knowing the record was nearing. Nationals manager Dusty Baker began to squirm.

“I knew there was a lot,” Baker said. “But, when they put it on the board, I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ At that point in time, you know, how often do you have a chance to make history like that?”

There was no conversation between the eighth and ninth inning, Scherzer said. He came back to the mound with just a two-run lead. After J.D. Martinez hit the first pitch of the inning for a home run, the lead was one. Closer Jonathan Papelbon stood ready with his arms folded on the bullpen mound. Baker stayed along the rail next to the dugout steps. Cabrera walked to the plate.

Tuesday, Scherzer had gushed about Cabrera, referring to him as the “best hitter on earth.” This is the person to be measured against, Scherzer explained. He couldn’t wait to face the former Triple Crown winner, known for plate coverage and pop, able to handle about any pitch or pitcher. The drama was minimal. Cabrera became the 19th strikeout when a 97-mph fastball — just like in the first inning — zoomed by.

Victor Martinez was able to single, tightening the circumstance as the tying run at first base. The trek toward the record also carried the game and relief in the balance. The Nationals were minutes away from a needed break: Thursday would put an end to 16 consecutive games played.

Three pitches later, Justin Upton became strikeout No. 20. Scherzer had matched the record. With one batter to go — James McCann, whom he had struck out three times already — standing alone in history was within reach.

“It crossed my mind,” Scherzer said.

McCann was appearing in just his 11th game this season. He came into the game hitting .121. In the first three at-bats against Scherzer, he had lasted just 10 pitches. He had fouled off one pitch. Otherwise, nothing.

A first-pitch fastball whizzed by for a strike. Scherzer began to think.

“I remember thinking in that 0-1 count, if I get this slider… I was thinking of all the different scenarios in an 0-2 count what I could do to be able to get that last strikeout,” Scherzer said.

An 0-2 count against Scherzer is a worst-case scenario.

“It’s like a horror film,” J.D. Martinez said. “He’s got three pitches that can put you away: the fastball, slider and changeup.”

McCann survived the end of the movie. He rolled a slider to third base for the final out. Scherzer would have to share history.

“You just take a win,” Scherzer said. “You take the 20 strikeouts.”

He smelled like a frat house on Sunday morning as he passed through the clubhouse with his arm in ice afterward. Scherzer’s former team had come to town, reigniting his competitive fight. It was enough inspiration for him to make history again.

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