CINCINNATI -- The proclamation is steep considering he has won the National League Cy Young Award in each of the past two years, but Nationals ace Max Scherzer has made it clear to begin the 2018 season that he is not satisfied. He believes he can be a better pitcher this year than he was last year.
In his first start of the season, Scherzer got to work in proving that point. During Friday's 2-0 victory over the Reds, he struck out seven consecutive batters from the second inning and into the fourth before Joey Votto broke up the streak with a flyout. He finished with 10 strikeouts in six scoreless innings, matching Stephen Strasburg's Nationals Opening Day record set in 2014.
"I want to say on one hand it's business as usual, but I'm still not used to it," left-hander Sean Doolittle said. "It's so fun to watch. I'm sitting back here, we've got a great view from behind the pitcher. Watching him work, it's a lot of fun. I've got to learn another way to describe it. Sometimes you get caught up."
Scherzer began the season firing a mix of his entire arsenal. The Reds loaded up their lineup with left-handers, who have only a slight increase in success against Scherzer than righties, but it was futile. His changeup darted out of the zone. He moved his fastball up in the zone to entice hitters. He used his slider and cutter against both right- and left-handed hitters, forcing them to guard against pitches that moved to both sides of the plate.
The Reds scattered five hits and a walk against Scherzer, three knocks coming off the bat of Scooter Gennett. Scherzer allowed only one player to record three hits in a game against him last season (Michael Conforto of the Mets on April 23).
But Scherzer walked the tightrope perfectly when he got into a jam and pitched his way out of it. Had Scherzer's pitch count not increased through a laborious fourth inning, perhaps he would have challenged the record for the most Opening Day strikeouts, which belongs to Camilo Pascual, who struck out 15 for the Washington Senators in 1960 against the Red Sox.
"I really try not to give pitchers credit, but today I have to just tip my cap to him," Reds left fielder Jesse Winker said. "I just feel he puts the ball where he wants it. We kind of had him on the ropes and he just got out of it, fairly easily."
This was Scherzer's third Opening Day start for Washington, after he was unable to make the start last year while dealing with a minor injury. There are few players more openly competitive than Scherzer, who relishes taking the ball in the biggest moments, and he certainly rises to the occasion on Opening Day.
This marked the second time in Scherzer's career that he has struck out seven consecutive batters in game. The other came during his no-hitter against the Mets in October 2015 when he struck out nine in a row at one point. The MLB record is 10 straight by the Mets Tom Seaver on April 22, 1970.
"We had a really good plan," Scherzer said. "[Catcher Matt] Wieters did a great job behind the plate calling a mix of in and out, hard and soft. Not making any mistakes, working on the edges, and avoiding the big inning. It was tight there with 1-0 in this ballpark. You can't make mistakes. You have to keep executing pitches in those situations. Like I said, we had a plan. Wieters called it, and I executed it."
And Scherzer's plan for the 2018 season is to be better than he was a year ago. So far, he seems well on his way to executing that plan as well.