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A 21-K game not a matter of 'if,' but 'when'

MLB.com @JPosnanski

The day is coming. Some team is going to strike out 21 Major Leaguers in a nine-inning game. It would be wonderful if it was one pitcher who did it but, well, that part's harder. We will get to that in a bit. But the point remains: The 21-blackjack-strikeout game is coming.

It is just a matter of when.

The day is coming. Some team is going to strike out 21 Major Leaguers in a nine-inning game. It would be wonderful if it was one pitcher who did it but, well, that part's harder. We will get to that in a bit. But the point remains: The 21-blackjack-strikeout game is coming.

It is just a matter of when.

If you are up on your baseball achievements, you can probably name all four pitchers who have struck out 20 batters in a game. Max Scherzer was the last to do it, back in 2016, and before that you had Randy Johnson in 2001, Kerry Wood on that famous day 20 years ago and Roger Clemens twice.

In addition to those individual games of brilliance, the Red Sox last May struck out 20 Rangers. It took five pitchers to do it, yes, but 20 strikeouts is 20 strikeouts … and it's still tied for the record.

Video: TEX@BOS: Watch the Red Sox fan 20 in 20 seconds

Well, that record cannot stand for much longer. Look around: We live in the strikeout zone. At this exact moment, teams are striking out 8.7 times per game, way up from last year's record pace of 8.3 per game, which was way up from 2016's record pace of 8 per game, which was way up from 2015's record 7.7 per game. Baseball's strikeout record has been broken 10 times in the last 10 seasons, which looks an awful lot like a trend.

Twenty-one strikeouts in a game is coming. The only questions are when, and how many pitchers it will take to do it.

******

Our strikeout story should begin with someone you probably have never heard of (unless you happen to be this guy, Old Hoss Radbourn). Charlie Sweeney and Radbourn were the two main pitchers of the 1884 Providence Grays, and by contemporary accounts, they despised each other. Radbourn was the veteran and the star; that was the season he went 59-12, pitched 678 2/3 innings and struck out 441.

But Sweeney wanted his due, too. He was a hard-throwing 21-year-old from the Wild West, the son of the toughest policeman in San Francisco, a cocky force of nature who thought he was pretty darned good. He had no interest in merely being Radbourn's understudy.

This led to a pretty extraordinary exchange. Sweeney watched on June 6 as Radbourn pitched 16 innings and allowed just four hits and one run. The papers called it one of the best pitched games ever. Sweeney had to do something to top that.

And so, on June 7, in front of almost 7,500 people, Sweeney set the so-called Major League record for strikeouts, with 19.

"Sweeney gave the most remarkable exhibition of pitching ever witnessed in Boston," wrote the Boston Globe. "His pitching was wonderful, and the men either fanned the air with the bat or stood still while [the umpire] called strikes on them. Outs and ins, drops and rises seemed to be all the same to Sweeney. He could give them all, and pitched some of the most deceptive curves imaginable."

Now, let's be clear: The pitcher in those days threw from 50 feet away, not 60 feet and 6 inches. It took eight balls to get a walk. Hitting a batter did not result in him going to first base. Foul balls were not strikes. It wasn't exactly the same game.

That said, no pitcher would strike out 19 in a nine-inning game for the next 85 years. The modern record would creep up to 19 quite slowly. In the early part of the 20th century, several pitchers, including Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and Rube Waddell, struck out 16.

Waddell, you should know because we mention him, was infatuated with fighting fires. He just loved it; he would see firefighters heading to a fire in whatever town he happened to be in and would go chasing after them. His manager, Connie Mack, used to say that Waddell always wore red shirts just in case a fire broke out nearby.

In July 1933, Dizzy Dean struck out 17 Chicago Cubs to set what people were calling the modern strikeout record. He struck out the final six batters to get the record. My favorite part of this is that the newspapers made almost as big a deal about Dean's catcher, Jimmie Wilson, setting a record for putouts in a game, with 18.

A 19-year-old Bob Feller was the first to strike out 18; he did that on the last day of the 1938 season, against the Tigers. He ended up losing that game, 4-1, because he also walked seven batters.

"I guess I had it," Feller said. "But doggone it that I didn't have more control. Wait until I get to be 22 or 23."

Doggone it, indeed.

It still would be another 30-plus years before someone would match Sweeney and strike out 19 in a game.

******

In 1969, Steve Carlton was not fully formed as a pitcher. For one thing, he was still talking to the press then. More to the point, he had not quite developed the confidence he would soon have with his slider. He was mostly a fastball pitcher in 1969, and at least one pitching coach thought he might be better off throwing his curveball rather than his slider.

Carlton's slider would develop into one of the most dominant pitches in baseball history.

Even so, he was still very good in 1969 -- he finished with a 2.17 ERA, which was second only to Juan Marichal's 2.10. Only Sept. 15, 1969, though, he felt awful. He had a fever. His back hurt so much that he did not think he would even be able to start. He showed up at the park an hour before first pitch and considered asking to be scratched. It took a lot to scratch a pitcher in 1969, though. Carlton took a couple of pain killers, got a back massage and headed for the bullpen to warm up.

Then he went out and struck out 19 Mets to set the modern record.

Video: Mad Dog talks about Carlton striking out 19 in loss

Carlton was hot from the start, striking out the side in the first and second innings. He had seven strikeouts and a 1-0 lead going into the fourth when he gave up a two-run homer to Ron Swoboda. He struck out the side after that to get to 10.

Carlton had 15 strikeouts in the eighth inning and his Cardinals again had a 3-2 lead when he once more faced Swoboda with a runner on base. This time he threw four fastballs and worked to a 2-2 count. He figured Swoboda was perfectly set up to swing and miss at a slider. He figured wrong. Swoboda hit his second home run of the game and gave the Mets the lead.

Carlton struck out Al Weis to end the eighth for the 16th strikeout.

"In the last inning, I went out there going for the record," Carlton told reporters. "I went out there to strike out three men. I was so nervous I would rather have had the guy get a hit than foul out or ground out."

Carlton did strike out the final three batters he faced -- Tug McGraw, Bud Harrelson and, finally, the record-breaker, Amos Otis, to get to 19. And even though the Cardinals lost the game, everyone in the ballpark in St. Louis rose to their feet.

"I'm very elated to have done something no other pitcher has ever done," Carlton told reporters. "I knew I had done something special when I got that standing ovation."

Just a few months later, in April 1970, Tom Seaver struck out 19 Padres to tie the record. He did it just three days after Nolan Ryan had set the Mets team record with 15 in a game.

"That's what they're there for," Ryan told reporters of his short-lived record.

Seaver was pitching a pretty good game; he had nine strikeouts in his first 5 2/3 innings. Then, with two outs in the sixth inning, he struck out Al Ferrara. And something changed.

"I wasn't really aware of the strikeouts," Seaver said. "But then they just kept coming."

Seaver struck out 10 in a row to end the game, a Major League record then and now.

MLB Network remembers Seaver's 19 K's

Ryan struck out 19 in 1974, when he was pitching for the Angels. One fun tidbit is that he also had been at both Carlton and Seaver's 19-K games -- "I guess I'm the only person in the world to see all three of them," Ryan told reporters.

Ryan actually had a chance to be the first to strike out 20 when he faced Rick Burleson to end the game. But Burleson was a tough strikeout; he was the only hitter in the Red Sox lineup not to strike out in the entire game. He flied out to right field on Ryan's 171st pitch.

Yep: 171 pitches. And that gives you a clear idea of why it will be hard for a starter to have that first 21-strikeout game.

******

Two other pitchers -- David Cone in 1991 and Randy Johnson twice in 1997 -- have struck out 19 in a game, but that total was rendered second-best in 1986, when Clemens had his amazing three-hit, 20-strikeout, zero-walk game against Seattle. That game was so beautiful that Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer, who has been around the game more or less forever, had tears in his eyes.

Video: SEA@BOS: Clemens sets MLB record with 20 strikeouts

A lot was made at the time about Clemens not walking a batter, an amazing achievement. But here's the crazy thing: In all five of the 20-strikeout games by a starter, there were zero walks.

In this time where everyone is watching pitch counts closer and closer, this is essential. Take a look at the pitch counts for each of the 20-strikeout games:

Clemens, 1986: 138 pitches

Clemens, 1996: 151 pitches

Wood, 1998: 122 pitches

Johnson, 2001: 124 pitches

Scherzer, 2016: 119 pitches

Scherzer, it should be noted, had real a shot at 21 strikeouts. He already had 20 when he faced James McCann to end the game. Scherzer had struck out McCann three times already. This time, though, McCann grounded out to third.

When you look at the pitch counts, it's clear that the first two Clemens games simply would not happen now, not even for a stubborn, don't-you-dare-take-me-out pitcher like Clemens. And I'm not sure even the Johnson game, at 124 pitches, would happen now.

Look: On May 2, James Paxton struck out 16 in seven innings and might have had an outside shot at 21. But he had thrown 105 pitches, and he was taken out of the game.

Scherzer -- who really is probably the most likely pitcher to do it -- had 15 strikeouts through 6 1/3 innings just a few days later, but his pitch count was such an emergency (he had thrown 111 pitches), he was pulled in the middle of the inning.

So it's pretty unlikely that a single pitcher will get 21 K's, because it's pretty unlikely that he will survive the pitch count. Maybe it could happen for a veteran such as Scherzer or Justin Verlander or someone like that who possibly has earned the chance to throw 125 pitches in a game. I'd say if a pitcher has 20 strikeouts going into the ninth inning, a manager would probably send him out for a shot at the record. But who is going to get 20 strikeouts in eight innings, even in these crazy times?

The more likely scenario is that a 21-strikeout game will be a team effort. In the Paxton game, the Mariners relievers had a chance to get to 21, but they didn't strike out anybody, which is a rare, rare occurrence. (It is the only game this season in which Seattle closer Edwin Diaz did not strike out a batter.)

This year, so far, starters are averaging 8.3 strikeouts per nine, which would have been unheard of even a few years ago. But relievers are striking out 9.1 batters per nine, and 113 times this season a reliever has pitched one inning and struck out three. If a starter could even give the bullpen 15 strikeouts with two innings to go, there would be a real shot at 21.

And that's probably how it will happen. Soon.

One more only somewhat related thought: From May 17 to Aug. 22, 1958, second baseman Nellie Fox played 98 straight games -- 451 plate appearances -- and did not strike out once. Finally, in his 99th game, facing the Yankees, he went down swinging against Whitey Ford. Nobody really noticed. It wasn't until the game ended that anyone even knew that Fox had set a Major League record.

"All I did was not strike out," Fox said when he heard about the record. "That's the job."

Joe Posnanski is a national columnist for MLB.com.