Stop me if you've heard this one before: Max Scherzer has made history. The Nationals’ ace and the author of two no-hitters last season joined an even more prestigious club on Wednesday night against the Tigers, as the 31-year-old righthander struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game, tying the MLB record set by Roger Clemens in 1986 and matched by Kerry Wood in '98. Facing his former team, Scherzer sliced and diced Detroit's lineup, allowing two runs (both on solo homers) and not walking a batter in Washington's 3–2 win.
The numbers from Scherzer's night are staggering: 20 strikeouts, 96 strikes in 119 pitches, and 33 swings and misses. Scherzer struck out the side three times in the game, including back-to-back in the second and third innings, and had just one inning with only one whiff, that coming in the fourth. Fourteen of the 20 strikeouts were swinging, including all three in the third, and of those, seven were on his fastball. That four-seamer was a buzzsaw, but his other offerings were none too shabby: He punched out five hitters on his slider, and his changeup took care of four more.
Five Tigers hitters struck out three times, with special honors going to Anthony Gose, who whiffed all three times he came to the plate against Scherzer, twice swinging. Victor Martinez, meanwhile, was the only Detroit hitter to avoid the K, as he went 3 for 4 with three singles. That should come as no surprise, however: Martinez, who is notoriously hard to strike out, had whiffed just 11 times in 119 plate appearances before Wednesday's game, and his 9.2% strikeout rate this season is tied with Melky Cabrera for the seventh-lowest mark in the majors.
Despite all the strikeouts, Scherzer had to dodge trouble a few times on the night. In the third, he gave up his first run on a leadoff homer off the bat of Jose Iglesias, though he rebounded to punch out opposing starter Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez. In the seventh, he gave up a one-out single to Victor Martinez followed by a double to Justin Upton before getting James McCann looking and Anthony Gose swinging on a changeup in the dirt. Entering the ninth with 18 strikeouts and a 3–1 lead, Scherzer hung a slider to J.D. Martinez, who deposited it in the centerfield seats for a solo home run to cut the Nationals' advantage to one. Scherzer bounced back to whiff Cabrera on a fastball—the slugger's third of the night—but then gave up an opposite-field single to Victor Martinez to put the tying run on with one out. Manager Dusty Baker stuck with his ace, however, and Scherzer responded by striking out Upton on three pitches, finishing him with a slider to tie the record. Needing one more strikeout to make history, Scherzer got a swing-and-a-miss on his first pitch to McCann, but then could only watch as the Tigers' catcher knocked a slider to third base, where Anthony Rendon fielded and fired to first for the final out.
Despite coming up just short of becoming MLB's all-time single-game strikeout king, Scherzer still took his place in arguably the most elite pitching company in the game's history. Only two other pitchers have ever struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game: Clemens (who did it twice for the Red Sox, on April 29, 1986 against the Mariners and again on Sept. 18, 1996 against the Tigers) and Wood (who allowed just one hit in his masterpiece for the Cubs on May 6, 1998 against the Astros). Randy Johnson punched out 20 in nine innings while with the Diamondbacks against the Reds on May 8, 2001, though that game ultimately went 11 innings. The MLB record for most strikeouts in a game of any length belongs to Tom Cheney, who whiffed 21 hitters in 16 innings for the Washington Senators against the Orioles on Sept. 12, 1962. Scherzer does get one record all his own, though: His 119 pitches are the fewest thrown in a 20-strikeout game, besting Wood by three (albeit with the caveat that the pitch count wasn't recorded for Clemens's first 20-strikeout game in 1986).
For Scherzer, it's the fourth time he's struck out 15 or more batters in a game and his third time in the last calendar year; he punched out 16 in a one-hit shutout of the Brewers on June 14 of last season, then whiffed 17 in his no-hitter against the Mets on Oct. 3. Incredibly, in those four games with 15 or more strikeouts, Scherzer has walked just two batters combined: One against Milwaukee, and one against the Pirates while he was still with the Tigers back on May 20, 2012, when he struck out 15 over seven innings.
While Scherzer's outing won't go down as one of the most dominant games ever thanks to the two home runs allowed, the historic effort is a welcome change of pace from his struggles to start the season. Heading into the night, the righthander was toting an unsightly 4.60 ERA and 4.79 FIP through 43 innings—the product of a slight dip in his strikeout rate, a spike in his walk rate (3.14 per nine innings compared to 1.34 last year) and a huge jump in his home-run rate (1.88 per nine, a career-worst rate). In his last outing, Scherzer was pounded for seven runs in five innings against the Cubs, and his start against the Tigers was just his fifth quality start in eight tries. While the longball continued to plague Scherzer even on Wednesday, the return of his swing-and-miss stuff (he nearly doubled his previous season high of 18, which he reached in the season opener against the Braves and again against the Cardinals on May 1) has to be a relief for him and the Nationals.
Even more important was the strength of Scherzer's fastball. Coming into the night, that pitch had been tattooed for a .303 batting average and .632 slugging percentage when it had been put into play, with seven of Scherzer's nine home runs allowed coming on the four-seamer. One of Detroit's two homers on Wednesday came on the fastball, but nonetheless, the pitch was a clear strength for Scherzer, who threw it for strikes (51 of 62) and got plenty of swings and misses on it (18, a season high). Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, Scherzer saw much better results with the four-seamer last season (.232 batting average against in 2015), and he needs that pitch to be back to that level if he wants to see his ERA keep dropping.
Barring injury, Scherzer is a strong bet to return to his previous levels of production, and Wednesday showed once more that he's capable of brilliance any time he picks up the ball.