- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2017

Remember Jack Cassel? No? Max Scherzer does. He was the first. Victim No. 1 of what has become 2,005.

Let’s refresh the brain: Cassel, older brother to quarterback Matt, had a brief major-league career as a starting pitcher. He swung at and missed a fastball from Scherzer on April 29, 2008, to become his first strikeout. Scherzer was making his major-league debut for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was a hot-shot first-round pick, drafted 11th overall two years prior by a scouting department which Mike Rizzo ran. That day, Scherzer struck out seven in 4 ⅓ innings out of the bullpen. Current teammate Stephen Drew was watching from shortstop.

“He had a phenomenal arm,” Drew said. “We knew he was going to put it together sooner or later.”

Michael Bourn became Scherzer’s second strikeout victim. Miguel Tejada followed with a strikeout. Lance Berkman led off the next inning with a strikeout. Those three and Cassel were the first grains in what has grown to an expansive pile. Nine years later, Texas left fielder Nomar Mazara became Scherzer’s 2,000th strikeout. A 90 mph slider did the job.

Scherzer’s career arc since sitting down Cassel prompts a question: Can he make it to 3,000 strikeouts?

The 3,000-strikeout club has become progressively exclusive, but Scherzer has a clear path to join it. Of the 16 pitchers to reach the mark, none has done so in fewer than Bob Gibson’s 17 seasons. He is one of three pitchers to reach 3,000 strikeouts in less than 20 seasons. Since 2000, only five pitchers have surpassed the mark: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz. Smoltz was the last to do so. He struck out former Nationals player Felipe Lopez in 2008 to cross the threshold.

Contrast the exclusivity with the 3,000 hits and 500 home run groups. Thirty players have 3,000 or more hits in major-league history. Twenty-seven players have hit 500 or more home runs.

Reaching 3,000 strikeouts would continue Scherzer’s winnowing of historical comparisons. He has twice won the Cy Young Award, once in each league. At 32 years old, he is not slowing. Instead he has become better on a season-by-season basis, poised to annually tussle with Clayton Kershaw for title of best pitcher in the National League, if not best pitcher on the planet.

Scherzer sped to 2,000 strikeouts in such fashion that reaching 3,000 could be attainable. Only Martinez and Johnson reached 2,000 in fewer innings. No one faced fewer batters than Scherzer to get there. His stunning strikeout rate this season could push him past 300 strikeouts this season. He’s averaging 9.5 strikeouts per start, with about 21 starts remaining. That puts him on pace for a staggering 324 strikeouts this season. His career total would vault to 2,205 should that happen. Even if Scherzer does not maintain his bat-missing pace, he is likely to creep toward 2,150 strikeouts by the end of this season.

Then, he would be roughly 850 short of the club. That would provide Scherzer a chance to pass the total sooner than anyone else in major-league history.

“I just know that’s a long way away,” Scherzer said. “I’ve got to be durable. Do everything to keep going to even have a shot at that. You can get lost trying to think about those milestones. They distract from what’s at hand, at times. It’s better to keep the blinders on and keep marching forward.”

Only eight other active players have more than 2,000 strikeouts. Just ahead of Scherzer is Kershaw, who is three years younger, but also in his 10th season and surpassed 2,000 strikeouts June 2. It took him 277 games. Scherzer did it in 287. They could well race alongside each other toward 3,000. CC Sabathia leads active pitchers with 2,784 strikeouts. He is 36 years old. The end of his career is close. After Sabathia, enduring Bartolo Colon sits at 2,405 strikeouts. Felix Hernandez (2,286), Justin Verlander (2,266) are 31 and 34, respectively. Both have slowed.

Kershaw and Scherzer are dominating. Kershaw from the left side, targeting his fastball, using a veering slider and heart-breaking curveball to rampage through the league. Scherzer from the right, with a 97 mph fastball, hard-turning slider and enough curveball and changeup to cause confusion.

Kershaw and Scherzer have been on similar paths since 2008. They were in the same draft class and debuted within a month of each other. Now, they each have contracts worth more than $200 million, anchor two of the National League favorites and appear to have the cleanest journey of any current pitchers to hit 3,000 strikeouts before they are done.

“He just knows how to attack hitters,” Scherzer said of Kershaw. “He’s aggressive in the zone. He pitches off his fastball extremely well. He locates it so well. His slider — it’s so late, and so sharp. You can just see how he throws it to right-hand hitters and left-hand hitters. How he works off that glove-side fastball and glove-side slider. No one has a prayer on him.”

“Everything’s the same,” Drew said of the two. “They both hate to lose. They don’t miss their spot —- rarely. When they do, they can get away with it.”

The only time two players reached 3,000 strikeouts in the same season was in 1980. Steve Carlton, a lefty, and Tom Seaver, a righty, reached the total within 11 days of each other. In a six-year span from 1980-86, six pitchers threw their way to the milestone. Only six more have reached it since.

Scherzer could get there in six more seasons, maybe seven, maybe less. That would turn Cassel and Mazara into happily demoted footnotes.

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