- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2016

Shown a list of the first-pitch choices made Wednesday night, Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos smiled.

“Mixed it up pretty good,” he said.

It was a potent blend. Max Scherzer threw fastballs, sliders, cutters and even two curveballs to open at-bats during his 20-strikeout performance in a 3-2 win against the Detroit Tigers. Superior location and unpredictability populated his route to tying the major league record for strikeouts in nine innings.

Scherzer had often been in the middle of the strike zone this season. Those mistakes were being sent out of the ballpark, an issue even on Wednesday when he allowed two more home runs to reclaim the unwanted lead in those allowed among National League pitchers.

He also thought his pitches were not only inaccurate, but anticipated. There was a distinct change on Wednesday in both regards.

Scherzer had plenty of personal information about the Tigers. He played five seasons for Detroit, long enough for him to call Tigers star Miguel Cabrera the best hitter in baseball and to know how power-laden its lineup is. But, it was a conversation with Nationals teammate Stephen Strasburg that popped a new tactic into Scherzer’s head. Strasburg had told him to pitch high and hard against the Tigers. It was where he had success in his outing on Monday when he opened the series.

The strategy was put to work in the first inning. Cabrera swung through a 97-mph fastball that was high. In the sixth, J.D. Martinez did the same thing, looking feeble when doing so. Scherzer continued to throw his fastball at the head of Ramos or higher.

“I know that’s something I’m capable of doing and that can be a strength of mine,” Scherzer said of pitching up.

When he was at college in Missouri, Scherzer had a problem throwing strikes. He ended his freshman season on the bench because of wildness. Since he wasn’t pitching, he lifted weights and threw long toss more often. This strengthened his arm. That summer, he was throwing in the mid to upper 90s as a closer for the La Crosse Loggers of the Northwoods League, a collegiate summer league based in the western edge of Wisconsin. Then, it was easy to view the ultra-competitive Scherzer as a snarling closer in the future.

Instead, he worked himself into one of the pre-eminent strike throwers in baseball. Last season, his accuracy peaked. Scherzer set a career high with a 71.3 first-pitch strike percentage. For comparison, Zack Greinke was at his personal best last season when with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His first-pitch strike percentage was 64.1. His former teammate, Clayton Kershaw, threw a first-pitch strike 68.8 percent of the time in 2014, his best season.

That’s why Scherzer’s struggles with command this season seemed so odd, and why the amount of strikes he threw on Wednesday was almost more stunning than the strikeout total.

By game’s end, Scherzer had 20 strikeouts and had thrown 23 balls. Total, he threw 96 of his 119 pitches for strikes — 80.7 percent.

The start was his eighth of the season. In the prior seven, he often reached 23 balls thrown by the fourth inning. In his fourth start, it took him just two innings to fire that many wayward pitches. Only once this season had it taken more than five innings for him to throw 23 balls.

“He didn’t really give up too many pitches over the zone [on Wednesday],” Ramos said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. “He was locating his fastball a lot better. I think that was the biggest difference.”

Scherzer started 14 of the 33 batters he faced with an off-speed pitch. Most often, this was a slider. He threw one cutter and two curveballs for good measure. Only once in the game did he throw a first-pitch fastball to each hitter of the inning. That was the third. At one point, he even tripled up on the slider for a three-pitch strikeout of Justin Upton. After J.D. Martinez hit a first-pitch slider for a home run to begin the ninth inning, Scherzer closed with his fastball, starting each subsequent hitter with it. For a night, he was much harder to predict.

The evening was a flood of flashbacks for Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. He was in the Houston Astros’ lineup on May 6, 1998, when Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters. Ausmus struck out twice that evening. He was also in the Tigers‘ lineup on Sept. 18, 1996, when Roger Clemens had 20 strikeouts. Ausmus struck out once in that game.

Asked what was working for Scherzer against his club on Wednesday, the stoic Ausmus offered a question of his own.

“What wasn’t working?”

That may be the simplest way to put it.

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