WASHINGTON -- The ball left a sizeable imprint around Max Scherzer’s right eye, the blue one, now marked with a large bruise to go along with his swollen nose. Fluid had built up from the swelling underneath his eye, and it took him some time pregame to get used to his face “jiggling” around as he warmed up.
This was the face staring back at the Phillies’ hitters as they stepped into the box Wednesday night -- already one of the most intimidating starters in baseball, pitching with a black eye, a broken nose and an unflinching, irritated scowl.
At no point after suffering those injuries during a bunting incident the day before did Scherzer ever entertain the idea of missing this start. But while he was on the mound, it was as if the injury seemed to anger him. And the Phillies paid the price for being in the way.
Scherzer struck out 10 and tossed seven scoreless innings to lead the Nationals to a 2-0 victory at Nationals Park, completing the sweep in Wednesday’s doubleheader over the Phillies and authoring an outing that undoubtedly will be remembered among the gutsiest in what is shaping up to almost certainly be a Hall-of-Fame career.
“It really is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in awhile,” said second baseman Brian Dozier, who hit a solo homer to give the Nats a 1-0 lead in the nightcap after also homering in the first game. “He’s probably the best pitcher in our generation, and you don’t get that status unless you take the ball every fifth day no matter if you’re doing good, doing bad, got a broken nose -- you always want the ball.”
Predictably, Scherzer began downplaying his own feat after the game. On a scale of 1-10, he said his pain level was a zero. Plenty of pitchers would have taken the mound, according to Scherzer, just a little more than 24 hours after the injury.
“Trust me, this thing looks a lot worse than it actually is,” he said. “You take the ball every fifth time, that's my responsibility to the team.”
On the mound, it was a vintage Scherzer outing, challenging the Phillies with a lively fastball.
His four-seamer averaged 96.2 mph on the evening, tied for the third-highest in any of the 358 starts (including postseason) in his career. He had not thrown that hard over the course of a single outing since Sept. 28, 2015, and had not thrown harder since Sept. 7, 2012. His fastball generated 18 swinging strikes and touched at least 98 mph twice, something he had done on only one previous pitch this season and didn’t do all of last year.
That uptick in velocity -- Scherzer chalked it up to the weather. It was humid and hovering around 80 degrees in D.C. on Wednesday night, Scherzer’s ideal weather to pitch in.
“That's the best pitching weather you can ever be in,” Scherzer said. “That's what we had tonight, and when you get that weather like that, it makes it very easy to have a lot of energy on your fastball. You really don't have to put too much energy into your fastball and it kind of jumps.”
Yet on Wednesday night, it was as if Scherzer was pitching with a vengeance, even though his wound was self-inflicted. During pitcher’s batting practice on Tuesday afternoon, Scherzer accidentally bunted a ball off his face, fracturing his nose and bruising his eye. Shortly after the diagnosis was confirmed, Scherzer stood in manager Dave Martinez's office with a splint on his nose, pantomiming his pitching motion before telling his skipper flat out, “Expect me to pitch tomorrow.”
Martinez wanted to see whether Scherzer would wake up with increased swelling around his eye or have any trouble breathing with the injury. Or maybe he would want to wear protection on his face while he stood on the mound. Instead, Scherzer showed up before the nightcap of Wednesday’s doubleheader wanting to take batting practice, keeping with his usual routine. He even laid down a bunt with hitting coach Kevin Long.
Make no mistake, Scherzer was always going to pitch Wednesday night. It’s in his DNA. He told head athletic trainer Paul Lessard after the incident that even if this happened during a game, he would still want to pitch. A broken nose or a black eye was never going to stop him.
“I was kind of joking with him, ‘Oh you’re throwing today?’” Dozier said. “He kind of gave me the go-to-hell look. 'Of course, I’m throwing today, what do you mean?' That’s Max.
“That’s why you put him in the category of one of the best, if not the best, in the game, the best of our generation. You don’t get that by taking days off, missing starts and stuff.”
Scherzer has delivered many memorable outings in his career, especially since arriving in Washington four years ago. He twirled a pair of no-hitters in 2015 and matched a Major League record in ‘16 by striking out 20 batters in one game.
But this effort Wednesday night should be remembered along with them. A performance that will be played on the highlight reels commemorating his career and one that embodies a player who is often so unwilling to come out of the game and whose intensity on the field is nearly unrivaled around baseball.
“I wanted to pitch,” Scherzer said. “I didn’t feel any -- it doesn't feel great, but I wanted to pitch.”
A handwritten sign was left posted on Scherzer’s locker in the Nationals clubhouse reading, “If you try bunting tonight...PLEASE do us all a favor and wear this.” On the floor next to Scherzer’s locker? A red North Carolina State football helmet, which happens to be Trea Turner’s alma mater.
“My phone's been blowing up, everybody calling and giving me flak,” Scherzer said with a laugh. “I love it. If you can't talk trash on me right now, you never will.”