Scherzer's No. 2 no-no caps season of elite pitching
As great as the game's elite pitchers -- guys like Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw and David Price -- have been this season, why not this?
Why not Max Scherzer taking the mound against the playoff-bound Mets and reminding all of us, once again, why he was the guy that every team had to have last winter, even one that already had Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann?
We'll understand if you were otherwise occupied on Saturday night, but if you weren't paying attention to the Nationals' game at Citi Field, well, here's what you missed:
- The first time one pitcher threw two no-hitters during a single regular season since Nolan Ryan did it in 1973.
- A performance better than his semi-perfect game on June 20 against the Pirates, when Jose Tabata dropped his left elbow into the path of a 2-2 pitch with two outs in the ninth inning.
- One of the best pitching performances in history.
Yep, that's all.
Scherzer, who left the Tigers to sign a seven-year, $210-million contract with the Nationals in January, has been everything the Nats hoped he'd be, even if 2015 has been a disappointing season for the consensus pre-season favorite.
He won't be happy on Sunday, packing up his locker rather than taking his dynamite stuff into the October tournament, as the no-hitter against the Mets -- spoiled only by a Yunel Escobar throw that first baseman Clint Robinson couldn't handle -- left him with a 2.79 ERA to go along with a 14-12 record that could have been a lot better. But with his heterochromia stare burning holes into Wilson Ramos' mitt, Scherzer completely overpowered a lineup that has been the NL's best since the All-Star break.
He put together a 109-pitch (80-strike) outing that included almost zero mistakes. In carrying the Nationals to a 2-0 victory, his game score was 104, just the slightest margin behind Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout, one-hitter against the Astros in 1998. That one came in at 105, the best game score for a nine-inning game to date.
It's true that, even before Saturday night, this hasn't been the greatest of stretches for the Mets. They just got swept at Philadelphia and have gone 6-10 since Sept. 15. But, please. Blaming the Mets for anything that happened in this game is the same as blaming a postcard stretch of beach for not stopping a tsunami.
The way Scherzer was elevating 96- and 97-mph fastballs above the swing paths of hitters and burying sliders in the dirt, you would have had to clone Joey Votto to give him a fair fight. Scherzer struck out 17 and allowed exactly one hard-hit ball, that being Curtis Granderson's line out to second baseman Dan Uggla leading off the fourth inning.
Had Granderson not gotten just enough of the bat on a 96-mph fastball to pop up to Escobar with two outs in the ninth, Scherzer could have tied Tom Seaver's 45-year-old record by striking out the last 10 hitters in a game.
Think about that for a moment.
Leading off the sixth inning, Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki reached on the throwing error by Escobar, the Nationals' third baseman. He was taken off the bases when Daniel Murphy grounded into a fielder's choice for the second out in the sixth. Scherzer responded by getting stronger and stronger.
He struck out Granderson to end the sixth, throwing a 97-mph fastball up in the zone past him.
In the seventh, he struck out Ruben Tejada on a slider in the dirt, Michael Conforto on a changeup and Michael Cuddyer on a 96-mph fastball at the letters.
In the eighth, Scherzer threw a 95-mph fastball up in the zone past Kelly Johnson for the first out, with Ramos clutching a foul tip like a baby. Then he got Kirk Nieuwenhuis on a change, again with Ramos handling the foul tip, and Plawecki on an slider that broke across the plate, rather than diving down.
You shouldn't ever write off the chances of a Major League hitter. But it seemed pretty much all over by the ninth, and it was.
Yoenis Cespedes, pinch hitting on what was supposed to be a night off, swung through a 96-mph heater. Lucas Duda swung under a 95-mph fastball. And then Granderson popped up a 2-2 fastball on his hands that umpire Tony Randazzo probably would have called ball three.
This was vintage Scherzer, who paved the way for the Cubs' Arrieta.
In his book "Outliers,'' Malcolm Gladwell writes about the theory that genius is found in doing the same thing over and over, until we get it right. He's passing on an argument by K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin's Academy of Music, who studied practice habits and came to the conclusion that elite performers reach their status through 10,000 hours of practice, not anything in their DNA. Gladwell cited the Beatles and Bill Gates as those who found the highest level of success because of the hours they lovingly poured into their pursuits.
That's Scherzer, for sure. He wasn't a great pitcher for the first half of his career, going 40-39 with a 4.17 ERA in his first 678 1/3 innings for the Diamondbacks and the Tigers. But his career dividing line was eight shutout innings against the Rockies in an interleague game at Comerica Park on June 17, 2012.
From that night forward, Scherzer has gone 64-23 with a 2.88 ERA. That's a Hall of Fame trajectory, but he was about to turn to 28 when everything clicking in. That's at about the same exact point that Arrieta turned his career around.
Some people rolled their eyes at the Nationals giving Scherzer a seven-year deal at age 30. But signing him was one of the smartest things they did last winter.
It's a shame he'll pack up his locker and head home on Sunday. But on his way out the door, he served up a reminder that you'd be silly to write him or his team off in 2016.
Hurry back, Max.