Last Sunday, Max Scherzer took a perfect game into the seventh inning against the Brewers but had to settle for a one-hitter. On Saturday against the Pirates, the Nationals’ 30-year-old ace came even closer to perfection, but his two-strike pitch with two outs in the ninth hit Jose Tabata on the elbow, and he had to settle for the season's second-no-hitter.
The question of whether Tabata made any attempt to get out of the way—or even leaned into the pitch intentionally—will forever hang over Scherzer's gem. On the eighth pitch of the plate appearance and 103rd pitch of the afternoon, Scherzer threw an 86 mph slider inside. Tabata did not move his feet, and he drew his left elbow, which was covered by protective padding, downward as he twisted away:
Via Rule 6.08(b)(2), home plate umpire Mike Muchlinksi could have withheld the award of first base and called the pitch a ball if he believed Tabata made no attempt to get out of the way of the pitch, which was outside the strike zone. Such calls are rarely made, however, because determining intent with regard to a batter’s split-second reaction to a pitch is difficult. Former major league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, now an analyst for Fox Sports, argued that Tabata's reaction to the "cement mixer" slider (a breaking ball with no break) was legitimate:
Watching Tabata's left elbow you see it go out, toward home plate as he starts to move with the pitch being delivered. He sees the slider spin but is as surprised as any hitter would be that the pitch is in and staying in. It's not breaking away towards its intended target.
You're taught to turn in towards a ball that is in and might hit you, that is exactly what Tabata did. He flinches first, closes up and turns in, the left elbow changes direction and gets closer to his body and down. It hits him.
For what it's worth, after the game, Scherzer took the high road with regard to Tabata’s reaction, telling ESPN, "I don't blame him for doing it, I probably would have done the same thing." In the heat of the moment, he was even more impressive, maintaining his focus and composure to retire Josh Harrison three pitches later via a deep flyball to leftfielder Michael Taylor, thus completing the first no-hitter of his career:
Back in the third inning, Taylor was responsible for one of the game's two key defensive plays, a leaping catch near the wall to rob Jordy Mercer of an extra-base hit or perhaps even a home run. With two outs in the eighth, second baseman Danny Espinosa robbed Pedro Alvarez of a hit on a sharp groundball because he was positioned in shallow right-center as part of a shift. On the offensive side, Scherzer had more than enough support from his teammates via a solo homer from Bryce Harper in the fourth (his 23rd of the year), a four-run outburst in the sixth capped by Tyler Moore’s two-run single, and a double by Taylor in the seventh; he took third on a Scherzer sacrifice and scored on a wild pitch.
Scherzer is just the second pitcher to lose a perfect game via hit-by-pitch with one out to go. The same fate befell the New York Giants' Hooks Wiltse against the Phillies on July 4, 1908; he hit opposing pitcher George McQuillan but recovered to complete the no-hitter as well.
Scherzer is also the second pitcher to throw a no-hitter for the Nationals, both of which have happened in the past year; Jordan Zimmermann threw one on September 28, 2014, the final day of the regular season. Scherzer's was just the fourth no-hitter since the start of the 1914 season in which the only batters to reach base came via hit-by-pitch. On June 10, the Giants' Chris Heston hit three batters while completing his no-hitter, and prior to that, the Braves' Lew Burdette (August 18, 1960 against the Phillies) and the Marlins' Kevin Brown (June 10, 1997 against the Giants) completed the feat while each hitting one batter. Three other pitchers have hit one batter and walked none while completing a no-hitter, but allowed at least one other batter to reach base via an error.
Scherzer did carve another spot for himself in the history books: he is the first pitcher since at least 1914 to throw back-to-back games with game scores—the Bill James formula that credits and debits various outcomes in a pitcher's line score for comparative purposes, with 50 being average—of at least 96. Sunday's outing, in which he struck out 16, scored an even 100, which by that measure made it the best-pitched game since Clayton Kershaw's no-hitter last June 18, which scored a 102. Saturday's gem, in which he struck out 10, scored "only" a 97, one point below Heston and Corey Kluber's 18-strikeout, no-walk eight-inning effort on May 13. That's still enough to nose Scherzer past the Mets' R.A. Dickey, who in 2012 threw back-to-back one-hitters against the Rays (June 13) and Orioles (June 18) that scored 95 and 96. By comparison, Johnny Vander Meer's otherwise unequalled back-to-back no-hitters on June 11 and 15, 1938 scored an 88 and 86 because of his 11 walks and 11 strikeouts in the pair.
Facing one of the hottest teams in baseball—the Pirates' eight-game winning streak was snapped on Friday, but they came in having won 21 of 27—Scherzer was particularly efficient early in the game, needing just six pitches to get through the first inning, nine for the second, and 11 for the third, which was the first inning that he recorded a strikeout. He went above 12 pitches in an inning only in the fourth (17), eighth and ninth (14 apiece), and threw first-pitch strikes to 22 out of 28 batters. Via Brooks Baseball, he threw 59 four-seam fastballs, with an average velocity of 94.7 mph and a max of 97.7, with 24 sliders, 12 changeups and 11 curves. He netted 16 swings and misses, nine of them on the heater. Of his 10 strikeouts, eight were swinging, three via the fastball and two apiece via the slider and changeup. Four Pirates—starter Francisco Liriano, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco—struck out twice.
The debate over whether Tabata intentionally deprived Scherzer of a perfect game will rage far beyond this season, but no matter. What the Nationals ace has accomplished this week is special enough to withstand that imperfection.