WASHINGTON -- After Max Scherzer retired the Tigers in order in the first inning, blowing fastballs by J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera for back-to-back strikeouts, Bryce Harper said to Jayson Werth in the dugout -- "That's Max."
Indeed, this was the pitcher the Nationals became accustomed to last season. Scherzer delivered another historic and dominating performance, matching a Major League record with 20 strikeouts in a complete-game victory to guide the Nationals to a 3-2 win on Wednesday night at Nationals Park.
Scherzer became just the fourth pitcher to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning outing, joining Roger Clemens (twice -- April 29, 1986 and Sept. 18, 1996), Kerry Wood (May 6, 1998) and Randy Johnson (May 8, 2001).
:: Complete coverage of Scherzer's historic night ::
"Tonight, at the end of the night, was a special night," Scherzer said. "Because, I mean, the strikeouts are sexy. And to be able to punch out 20 -- it's sexy."
Scherzer did not become aware of the exact strikeout number until the end of the eighth inning, when the scoreboard flashed the 18. That's when he began to think about the record. And there was no debate about him going back out for the ninth. The Nationals had a two-run lead at that point, and manager Dusty Baker was willing to allow his pitcher a chance at history, even though Baker admitted after the game that he was nervous.
"Everybody knew I wanted the ball. Everybody was going to give me the ball," Scherzer said. "It was, 'Let's go out there and win this game.'"
Then, to begin the ninth, Scherzer allowed a solo home run to J.D. Martinez, one of two homers he surrendered on the night (the other was to Jose Iglesias in the third). But Scherzer focused in to face Cabrera as the potential tying run and attacked with four consecutive fastballs for his 19th strikeout -- "That's the equivalent of staring down the barrel of a gun," Scherzer said. Per Statcast™, the last pitch to Cabrera was his hardest of the night, at 98.1 mph.
Victor Martinez singled to left field before Scherzer recorded his 20th and final K, of Justin Upton, for the second out of the inning. He took a long walk around the mound after that punchout before gearing up for his next batter and the chance for a history-making 21st strikeout. After he got ahead in the count, 0-1, against James McCann, Scherzer allowed himself to think ahead and consider the chance at history, but McCann grounded out on the next pitch.
That this performance came in a tight game against his former team after enduring endless trash talk during the past few days made it even more special for Scherzer. His old teammates had told him they could not wait to hit home runs off him, although he said he would not have expected anything else but the smack talk.
And going into the game, Scherzer had the highest ERA among Nationals starters. He left his last start in Chicago after surrendering a career-high four home runs.
"I really don't feel like I've been pitching that well, especially how I pitched in Chicago," he said. "I almost needed the Tigers to come and almost get me amped up to get going. To be going on full cylinders and put something extra on the line."
And now, in his short time with the Nationals, Scherzer has a pair of no-hitters and a 20-strikeout game on his resume.
"Twenty is just an unbelievable number," he said. "There's something about 20 in the game. Twenty strikeouts, 20 wins. Those are huge numbers. To be able to go out there tonight and be able to accomplish one of those, that's a huge feat."