Scherzer always in pursuit of perfection
A solid pitcher years ago, Nats righty keeps tinkering, adding to repertoire in order to get better
Around the seventh inning of the Nationals' 6-0 win Saturday, it began to have the feel of inevitability. That's when they stood and roared with every pitch Max Scherzer threw.
That's also when players in both dugouts seemed to sense this might be one of those days they'd remember for the rest of their lives.
"Just pumped me up," Scherzer would say later.
Suddenly, this bundle of nerves and energy seemed to reach another level. This would be his moment.
"Let's go," Scherzer told himself. "I'm coming after you."
He opened the game by retiring 26 straight Pirates and got within one lousy out of a perfect game on a humid 91-degree Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park.
Perfection? That's one word for a day when Scherzer sailed through six innings, needing just 67 pitches.
He threw 50 of them for strikes and had two-ball counts only three times. That's a good working definition of dominance.
And then with two outs in the ninth inning, just when he was close enough to taste perfection, and feel it and touch it and breathe it, Pirates pinch-hitter Jose Tabata stepped to home plate with some fire of his own.
Tabata and Scherzer had a tremendous eight-pitch battle. Scherzer got out in front 0-2 with a slider/fastball combination he used the entire day. That's when the good stuff started. Scherzer missed with a couple of pitches. Tabata then fought off three in a row.
Each refused to give in, and isn't that how it's supposed to be? Scherzer came inside with a slider on the eighth pitch, and it nicked Tabata on the left elbow guard. Scherzer thus became the first pitcher in 107 years to lose a perfect game on a hit batsman with two outs in the ninth.
"You're so close," Scherzer said.
He said he wanted this one badly, not just for himself but for the 41,104 fans who stood and cheered those last three innings. He stepped off the mound as Tabata trotted to first base, gathered himself and got Josh Harrison to fly out to left field to complete the no-no.
If this was a consolation prize, it was a nice one. Scherzer broke into a wide grin as his teammates mobbed him and soaked him in chocolate syrup.
Remember the syrup thing? That was a celebratory gesture Scherzer himself started back in April in an effort to snap the Nationals out of an early-season funk.
Take a close look at this guy every time he takes the mound these days. This is the highest level of pitching. In his last two starts, he has faced 57 hitters and retired 54 of them. This isn't just power, although there's plenty of that. His fastball is averaging almost 94 mph this season and sat at around 97 mph on Saturday afternoon.
All the years of adding this, taking away that have brought him to this place. He has polished his slider to the point that it's also one of baseball's best pitches.
He still trusts his changeup and will occasionally throw a curve and a cutter. With Scherzer, it's never that easy to know. When he made his debut for the Arizona Diamondbacks seven years ago, he was strictly a fastball-changeup guy.
Those two pitches would have kept him in the big leagues, especially given his ability to throw the heater wherever he needs to throw it. Through the years, though, Scherzer has studied and tinkered. One year, he added a slider. In toying with different slider velocities, he came up with a curveball, another weapon.
This season, he has gone back to a power approach, throwing almost 80 percent fastballs and sliders with fewer curves and changeups. But that's just where he happens to be at the moment.
As he said this spring, "It's a never-ending process. You're always looking for ways to get better."
All that talent and all that intellect is why the Nationals made a seven-year, $210 million investment to pluck him from the free-agent market last offseason. Washington already had baseball's best starting rotation, but with Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann a year away from free agency, general manager Mike Rizzo wanted a long-term No. 1 starter.
Rizzo knew he could pencil Scherzer in for 220 innings and 240 strikeouts, but he also thought the fiery personality would be an important addition as well. As one of the Nationals said in April, "I think he gives us something we might need."
In the seventh inning Saturday afternoon, the whole complete package was on display. Scherzer would deliver a pitch and then step in front of the mound and hold out his glove demanding the ball back.
When he struck out Starling Marte on a wicked slider, a slider that came after a 97-mph fastball, he clenched his fists and screamed. He stalked around the mound and then struck out Andrew McCutchen on another slider to end the inning.
With that strikeout, he walked quickly off the mound, a raging bull, a man determined to go the distance. He seemed calmer in the final two innings, as if he just knew he would be able to write the ending he wanted to write. He didn't quite do that, but he came plenty close. Along the way, he reminded us all of his greatness.