Max Scherzer takes mound eyeing history for himself and Nationals
Max Scherzer has already achieved greatness this season, but he may not be done. After throwing a one-hitter on June 14 against the Brewers and following it up with a no-hitter on June 20 against the Pirates—arguably the best back-to-back starts in the last 100 years—Scherzer will take the hill for Washington against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night with a chance to extend both his personal streak of dominance and a scoreless streak compiled by a Nationals rotation that has already set a franchise record and is within reach of several other notable milestones.
A Washington starting pitcher has not allowed a run since rookie Joe Ross gave up a one-out RBI single to Gregory Polanco in the second inning of the team's 4–1 win over the Pirates last Friday. After getting out of that inning without further damage, Ross worked another 5 1/3 scoreless innings. Scherzer threw his no-no the following afternoon, and Gio Gonzalez threw seven scoreless frames to complete a sweep of the Pirates on Sunday. After an off-day on Monday, Stephen Strasburg worked five scoreless frames in his return from the disabled list on Tuesday, Jordan Zimmermann didn't allow a run in eight innings against the Braves on Wednesday, and on Thursday, Doug Fister tossed seven shutout innings to complete a sweep of Atlanta.
That outing took the Nationals’ winning streak to six games and extended the rotation’s scoreless streak to 41 1/3 innings, breaking the franchise record set by the 1981 Expos, the only Montreal team to make the postseason. From Aug. 23 to 29 of that year, starters Steve Rogers, Scott Sanderson, Bill Gullickson and Ray Burris combined for 39 consecutive scoreless innings. If Scherzer can hold the Phillies scoreless for the first three innings of Friday night’s game, the Nationals will tie the 2008 Indians for the second-longest scoreless streak by a rotation in the expansion era at 44 1/3 innings. However, he would have to pass the baton to Gonzalez on Saturday for the Nationals to have a crack at either the Expansion Era (since 1961) or Modern Era (since 1901) records. Both are within reach, however.
The 1974 Orioles hold the Expansion Era mark at 54 innings, while the Modern Era record, held by the 1903 Pirates, is 56 innings. That Pittsburgh team, which would go on to lose the first modern World Series that October, received six consecutive shutouts from their rotation in the heart of their streak. The ’74 Orioles got five straight shutouts during their streak from Ross Grimsley, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Cuellar again. Scherzer is the only National to throw a shutout in Washington's current streak, but if he throws another one Friday night, Gonzalez would need just six scoreless innings to break the modern record.
Of course, if Scherzer throws another shutout Friday night, his performance would be a bigger story than the Nationals’ rotation. Two turns ago, in Milwaukee, Scherzer was perfect through his first six innings before Carlos Gomez dropped in a broken-bat bloop single to lead off the seventh. Scherzer later walked Scooter Gennett in the eighth, but those were the only two baserunners he allowed in a 16-strikeout shutout of the Brewers. His last time out, he was perfect for 8 2/3 innings before Jose Tabata stuck his elbow in front of a pitch to reach first base. Scherzer then got the next man out to complete a 10-strikeout, 28-batter no-hitter.
Scherzer’s one-hitter in Milwaukee was arguably one of the dozen most dominant pitching performances of the last century: It was just the 12th nine-inning start since 1914 to result in a Game Score of 100 or better. Scherzer’s mark of 100 that day was actually better than his no-hitter (97), making him the first pitcher since 1914 to register Game Scores of 96 or higher in consecutive starts.
In those two outings combined, Scherzer pitched 18 innings, facing just three more than the minimum 54 batters over that span, and struck out 26 of the 57 men he faced (45.6%). None of his three runners advanced past first base. Not even Johnny Vander Meer’s famous back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, which included 11 walks, can compare to that level of dominance over consecutive starts.
So what’s the record for lowest minimum Game Score across three starts? The answer is 88, and it has only been done once since 1914. In '97, his last full-season with the Mariners, Randy Johnson ran off a remarkable streak of five straight starts from May 28 to June 19 in which he went 5–0 with a 0.23 ERA, but the three best starts in that run were the first three, resulting in Game Scores of 88, 89 and 92. In the first, Johnson struck out 15 Rangers in eight scoreless innings. In the next, he shut out the Blue Jays on two hits and struck out nine. In the third, he struck out 15 Tigers and allowed just one hit and three walks in eight innings. Johnson was nearly as good in his next start as well, striking out 12 Rockies in eight innings and allowing just two hits, but one of those was an Eric Young home run that broke Johnson’s 31-inning scorless streak and dropped his Game Score to a “mere” 84.
Scherzer would need only a 72 on Friday night to match Johnson’s game score total over those three games, but the total isn’t the point. Other pitchers have accumulated higher Game Score totals over three consecutive starts. What was so impressive about that trio of starts from Johnson was his minimum score. His worst start over that stretch saw him throw eight scoreless innings and strike out 15 men.
Regardless of the Game Score, if Scherzer were to throw a third consecutive shutout, he would join some impressive company. Only three pitchers have turned in three consecutive shutouts since the 1994 strike: Roger Clemens in August of '98 (Game Scores: 85, 99, 87), Brandon Webb in August of '07 (77, 86, 88), and Cliff Lee in June of '11 (85, 77, 86). The last pitcher to throw more than three shutouts in a row was Orel Hershiser, who threw five straight in the process of setting the all-time consecutive scoreless innings record in 1988. Hershiser’s highest Game Score in any of those shutouts was 86. Lee’s performance four years ago, meanwhile, wasn’t just the last time a pitcher threw three consecutive shutouts, but also the time a pitcher threw three straight complete games.
There’s thus a great deal of history within Scherzer’s grasp Friday night, and he has drawn a nearly ideal opponent in pursuit of it. The Phillies rank dead last in the majors in runs scored (244) and runs scored per game (3.30). However, they may not be the complete pushovers those numbers suggest. To begin with, Philadelphia has scored slightly more often at home (3.44 R/G), which is where this game will take place. Second, the Phillies have been on a small tear of late, scoring nine or more runs in three straight games from Sunday through Tuesday against the Cardinals and Yankees, averaging 8.25 runs per game over their last four despite scoring just twice in their series finale in the Bronx on Wednesday night. Indeed, the Phils' offense has improved each month this season and has produced 3.95 runs per game in June.
The biggest reason for that improvement has been rookie third baseman Maikel Franco, who has hit .395/.441/.767 this month with eight home runs in 22 games. Prior to going hitless Wednesday night, Franco had gone 13-for-21 (.619) in his previous five games. A well-regarded hitting prospect, Franco may be producing at an unsustainable level, but he’s not a fluke, and he’s seen Scherzer before (going 0-for-3 on May 22).
Working in Scherzer’s favor is the fact that he’s been far better on the road than at home this season, including his first career start at Citizens Bank Park in April, in which he held the Phillies to one run over six innings and struck out eight. In seven road starts this season, Scherzer has posted a 1.27 ERA and struck out 71 men in 49 2/3 innings (12.9 K/9 and 36.8 K%), holding opponents to a .197/.229/.275 batting line without being particularly lucky balls in play. In three of his last four road starts, including his near no-hitter in Milwaukee, Scherzer held his opponents scoreless for seven or more innings. If he can turn in a similar performance Friday night, he’ll make history, again.