Max passes Hall of Famer on all-time K's list

May 20th, 2021

Wednesday proved to be a hectic day for the Nationals.

The day began with a confirmed positive COVID-19 case for a vaccinated player, and it later featured a Victor Robles rolled ankle, a home run off Wrigley Field’s right-field scoreboard and a runner interference call on Trea Turner that led to an ejection for manager Dave Martinez.

But through all the craziness of what turned out to be a 4-3 win over the Cubs, made history.

The Nationals ace struck out Cubs center fielder Ian Happ to end the third inning. On a micro level, the out was important because it stranded left fielder Joc Pederson at first and preserved a one-run lead for Washington. In the grand scheme of things, though, Scherzer's fourth of eight strikeouts over his five innings on the night moved him past Hall of Famer Jim Bunning and into 19th place on Major League Baseball’s all-time strikeout leaderboard as the 2,856th of his career.

“It's cool, don't get me wrong, to continue to move up those leaderboards, but that's not what I play the game for,” Scherzer said. “I want to come to the park and win.”

Scherzer entered the game ranked fourth in the National League with 68 strikeouts and fourth with 11.92 per nine innings. Considering those numbers and the strikeout dominance Scherzer has displayed throughout his career (the shortened 2020 campaign was the first time the right-hander didn’t reach 200 punchouts in a season since 2011), the question was when and not if he would move up the list on Wednesday in Chicago.

Scherzer’s first K of the night also came against Happ to end the first inning. Following a strikeout-free second, Scherzer got Cubs starter Jake Arrieta looking and first baseman Kris Bryant swinging in the third inning, sandwiched around a walk to Pederson. Then, on a 3-2 count, Scherzer blew a 96.6 mph fastball -- his second-fastest pitch of the game, according to Statcast -- past a swinging Happ to continue his ascent up the history books.

“It's fun watching him pitch and go about his business, and [I] try not to take those [games] for granted,” Turner said. “I think he's special.”

Scherzer’s historic day nearly went haywire in the fifth. Happ hit an RBI-blooper to center field, and the Cubs had the bases loaded in a two-run game. Scherzer, though, managed to find another gear. He punched out Chicago catcher Willson Contreras swinging, then induced a flyout from third baseman David Bote on a 97.1 mph fastball -- the fastest and 100th pitch he threw -- to escape the jam.

“That fifth inning, I think it just sums him up,” Turner said. “He's just competing out there from beginning to end, trying to make each and every pitch. ... For me, I just appreciate the intensity and appreciate the competitiveness, because that was a big inning. It may be the fifth inning in the game, but that could've been the difference.”

Now at 76 strikeouts through his first nine starts this season, Scherzer could compile 270 (at a 200-inning pace) in 2021. If he’s able to reach that this season, Scherzer would move into 18th place with 3,054 K's, ahead of Justin Verlander (3,013) and exactly 100 behind Pedro Martinez in 13th (3,154).

It’s not a mark Scherzer is actively seeking -- and with a pitcher’s rest being of utmost importance, 200 innings may not even happen -- but it’s a mark that would put Scherzer in even more rarefied air.

“To me, it's more of a test about durability,” Scherzer said. “Being able to be healthy, going out there year in, year out, continue to pitch well and continue to pitch well as I continue to age. I pride myself in that. It's not necessarily [that] I pride myself in passing people on a list, but I pride myself on being durable, accountable and going out there and making all my starts.”