Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Master At Arms: Maxwell Scherzer and the Brass Ring of Pitching Immortality

As recent as two years ago, Max Scherzer had never completed a game. I was at his first- a game my father and I attended on the south side of Chicago back in June of 2014. In the time since that milestone that night, the Cy Young winning, Missouri native has thrown two no-hitters, one for each eye color I suppose. Both no-nos came after the Detroit Tigers lost Scherzer to free agency and the Washington Nationals. On Wednesday night, Scherzer and the Tigers met as foes for the first time since his departure from the Motor City. Max did not toss a no-hitter. He never came close, but some might say what he did was much more impressive.

J. D. Martinez had given him trouble. The strikeout came, but it was not until nine pitches had left Scherzer's arm. No one wants to rack up a pitch count in the first inning, and luckily Ian Kinsler had gone down on the first pitch of the game- a pop fly caught in foul territory. Miguel Cabrera was last in the inning, and fortunately for Max, the future hall of famer hacked away at a few speed balls, heading back to the dugout after only seeing three pitches. Crisis averted. 

As a part of a three team trade back in December of 2009, he was one of the lower ranking names to be tossed around in the deal. Curtis Granderson moved from the Tigers to the Yankees, Ian Kennedy from New York to Arizona, and a twenty-five year old Max Scherzer was traded from the desert to Detroit, where he would find his way as a Major League pitcher. On the flip side of that particular exchange, the Diamondbacks received journeyman innings-gobbler Edwin Jackson, who would go on to throw a no-hitter in 2010. Within three seasons, Max Scherzer rose to credibility from a reliable starter to a dominant force who went on to lead the league in strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 2012, tossing a career-best 231 kills that year. The best was certainly yet to come.

The no-hit bid was deflated in the second inning with a Victor Martinez single, but soon thereafter, Max took complete control of the Tigers' lineup. Justin Upton and James McCann went down chasing sliders in the high-eighties. Anthony Gose took a curveball. Then fouled off a fastball. Then posed like a statue on a ninety-four miles per hour fastball, ending the inning. The third frame was not much different, aside from Jose Iglesias tying the game on a first-pitch home run. Once the Tiger shortstop touched home plate, the switch flipped within Scherzer. The next three batters struck out swinging. He caught his pitching opponent, Jordan Zimmermann, with a slider. For Ian Kinsler, it was the heater, coming in at a toasty ninety-six miles per hour. It had taken a few extra pitches to get both, but in the end their fate was the same. So, too, went the second at bat for J. D. Martinez, only his death knell was the sound of a curveball whipping past a piece of lumber. Through three innings, Max Scherzer had personally cut down eight of the eleven batters he had faced.

In 2013, Max Scherzer was the only pitcher to win twenty or more games. Despite the pitcher win being a rather archaic metric for measuring success, it was still front and center on his Cy Young resume. The Tigers had made, and lost, the World Series the year before, and were carrying the 2011 Cy Young-MVP Justin Verlander as well as triple crown winner and reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera. Scherzer's ascent was at the right time for the Detroit faithful, who were shouldering a near-thirty-year title drought. Max had quickly become the man for the Tigers despite their star-studded roster. During the team's twelve-game win streak that spread from July into August, Scherzer accounted for three wins. Over the length of the season, he had allowed 152 hits and only given away fifty-six free passes, leading the league in WHIP in the process. His 2.90 earned run average was fifth best in the American League. Despite the argument that Chris Sale or Hisashi Iwakuma had better seasons, Scherzer was named the 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner. At twenty-nine, the heterochromic pitcher from St. Louis, Missouri, was on top of the pitching world.

Through the next three innings the strikeouts came less often, but to say five K in three innings is sub-par would be taking lightly what Max was doing Wednesday night in the nation's capitol. Miggy Cabrera was the only victim in the fourth, but McCann, Gose, Kinsler, and J. D. Martinez all fell again over the fifth and sixth innings. Eight strikeouts soon became thirteen with a third of the game yet to play. The Nationals reclaimed the lead in the bottom half of the sixth, but a one run lead kept the home team's starter on his toes as the game drifted from twilight to night. The buzz around his outing had grown from a dull clamor to a wave of interest across social media. It appeared as if tonight was the opportunity for Scherzer to not only get a complete game, but put together an outing that would stand the test of time.

Three times in the modern era, it had happened. Twice by the one-godlike, now reviled Roger Clemens. Once by the a rookie on the Chicago Cubs named Kerry Wood. Through nine innings, they had struck out twenty batters. In an era in which offense was king, Clemens and Wood completed a feat that is still brought up to this day. Recently, us Cubs fans celebrated the eighteenth anniversary of Wood's twenty strikeout game. I identify it as the moment I decided to follow the team. I remember everything about the day, especially since I was conveniently home sick. For years, WGN rebroadcast the game in place of rain delays or postponements, or even as an anniversary salute. This was not a no-hitter mind you, yet in many places across the internet, it is revered as the greatest game ever pitched. That is the significance of twenty strikeouts. 2016 Max Scherzer was not in the same realm as Kerry Wood was on that day in 1998. Then again, maybe no one ever was or will be. Still, a run at twenty was possible for Max, but what was truly in the balance was the game itself. Washington clung to a 2-1 margin as the seventh inning began.

If there was a moment of trouble for Scherzer, it was then. Victor Martinez singled following a Cabrera lineout. Justin Upton lifted a double to center field, nearly plating Martinez. With runners on second and third, the pressure was never greater. McCann was caught looking at a fastball after hacking away at Max's first two pitches. Gose pushed the battle to two balls and two strikes before getting caught up on a nasty changeup. The threat denied, Washington added a run in the bottom of the inning. As well as Scherzer had pitched to that point, padding the lead to 3-1 seemed a decent enough bumper to win the game.

The eighth was a stunning display of dominance. Jose Iglesias was called out on strikes to up the K counter to sixteen. Detroit starter and former Washington National Jordan Zimmermann was replaced by Jarrod Saltalamacchia as a pinch hitter, but his fate was much the same. After taking the first pitch, the man nicknamed Salty made his appearance short and sweet, staring at a changeup for a called strike three. Seventeen. Ian Kinsler held off on a slider clocking in around the mid-eighties for strike one, then fouled away a fastball ten clicks faster. In a quick 0-2 hole, all Kinsler could do is watch as another fireball blew past his body. Strike three. Eighteen.

In 2015, Max Scherzer became the fifth pitcher in Major League history to throw two no-hitters in a single season. It had not been accomplished for over forty years when Nolan Ryan (of course) did it in 1973. Overshadowed by the messianic dominance of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinkie, and Jake Arrieta, Max had a lost season for the ages. Not only were two no hitters attached to his name, but the latter featured seventeen strikeouts, tying the record for Ks in a no-hit outing. In that game, he daunted the eventual National League Champion New York Mets. The right hander's fiery resolve shone through with each growing moment of tension. He felt the weight of his own hype but never buckled beneath it, instead he used it as leverage to frustrate the likes of Curtis Granderson and Yoenis Cespedes. The legend of Max Scherzer had grown immensely in just his time since leaving Detroit. On May 11th, 2016, he went out for the ninth inning with a chance at history.

The first player to give Max any trouble in the game would ultimately do so again. J. D. Martinez led off the final frame with a home run that cut the lead in half. The game was in limbo and history was a parallel storyline to the one that would show up in the standings. 

Miguel Cabrera, perhaps one of the greatest hitters to ever live, was next. Scherzer would give him only heat. He fouled away the first offering. Took the second for a ball. Then the Cabrera that ended the 2012 World Series showed his face. Two monster hacks came and went, each looking to tie the game instantly. He was the nineteenth Tiger to strikeout.

Of course, there needed to be more tension to a one run ballgame, so Victor Martinez supplied a one-out single to left, spurning the team habit of missing everything. Justin Upton had a chance to make the lead disappear.

94 MPH fastball: fouled away.
93 MPH fastball: fouled away.

With a roar echoing a Michael Bay cinematic climax, Nationals Park prepared joyously for the next pitch. Scherzer got the sign, set, and wound.

85 MPH slider: swinging strike.

Twenty.

While the game would end on a comparatively flaccid fielder's choice groundout, the legacy Max Scherzer had built in a little over eight seasons had its newest keystone moment. There have been countless pitchers to throw a strikeout in an MLB game. Many men have tossed no-hitters. These things can be forgotten over time, left to the pages of fun facts and "remember him" segments on Twitter. Though other pitchers tend to steal the spotlight and obscure the greatness of Max Scherzer, tonight, an ace of the truest kind made sure we remembered his name.

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