Jun 20, 2015, 10:50 PM EDT
Updated at 10:50 p.m.
When it didn’t happen six days earlier, when Carlos Gomez’s broken-bat blooper fell to the ground just beyond Anthony Rendon’s outstretched glove in the seventh inning in Milwaukee, Max Scherzer could only shrug off his bad luck and wonder if he’d ever get another chance like that to pitch a perfect game.
So when, incredibly, it happened again Saturday evening, when Jose Tabata’s left elbow was clipped by a 2-2, 2-out slider in the ninth inning on South Capitol Street, Scherzer could only shrug it off once again but this time focus on the opportunity that still lay before him.
“Pretty easy to do,” he said later. “It probably took two seconds. Realized I lost the perfect game. You just move on. Finish this thing out.”
Which is exactly what Scherzer did, falling one strike short of the 24th perfect game in MLB history but completing the first no-hitter of his career, the second in Nationals history, the fourth in Washington’s baseball history.
With precision and power, Scherzer retired the first 26 Pittsburgh Pirates who dared step into the box to face him on a muggy, 91-degree day. He lost his shot at perfection when that 2-2 slider with two outs in the ninth clipped Tabata’s elbow. (Or did Tabata’s elbow find the ball?) But he immediately got Josh Harrison to fly out to left to cap a 6-0 victory, setting off a mad celebration in the middle of the diamond that ended with Scherzer completely drenched in chocolate syrup courtesy Jordan Zimmermann, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth.
“Cloud nine,” Scherzer said about 20 minutes later after a quick shower. “When you can celebrate with your teammates on a major accomplishment, there’s nothing better. And when everybody wants to celebrate with you, dump the Gatorade, pour the chocolate syrup … How many bottles did we have? It felt like we had 3 bottles.”
Actually, Scherzer was informed, it was six.
“Six bottles? Dear, god,” he moaned. “I thought it was three. Alright, so I had six bottles of chocolate syrup all over me. I mean, that’s just a great feeling. I can’t describe it. It’s a cloud nine moment.”
That it would happen at the end of a week that began with another near-perfecto only added to the drama.
Scherzer carried a perfect game into the seventh inning at Miller Park on Sunday before Gomez’s broken-bat single to shallow right broke up that shot at history. He still finished with a 1-hit, 1-walk, 16-strikeout shutout, still one of the most dominant pitching performances in history (as evidenced by its Game Score of 100).
This one featured one fewer baserunner and six fewer strikeouts, though obviously zero hits or walks. Put it all together and you get a Game Score of 97. Which makes Scherzer the first pitcher in baseball history with back-to-back Game Scores that high, having retired 54 of the last 57 batters he has faced, 26 via strikeout.
“His last two starts have just been unbelievable, just dominant,” first baseman Tyler Moore said. “You see some crazy swings [from] professional hitters. Sometimes I feel like they just don’t have a chance.”
The Pirates didn’t have many legitimate chances on Saturday. Bryce Harper had to track down Starling Marte’s long fly to the base of the fence in right-center in the top of the first, and Michael Taylor made a nice catch of Jordy Mercer’s drive to the wall in left in the top of the third.
Those were the only close calls until two outs in the eighth, when second baseman Danny Espinosa (who had shifted into shallow right field) ranged to his right and made a long throw across his body to barely beat Pedro Alvarez at first base, much to the relief of the sellout crowd of 41,104.
“You typically don’t work on a play at second to your right, that you get around the ball to throw it,” Espinosa said. “At short, that’s a play you make a lot. But at second, that’s typically not a play you make. Getting around the ball, the throw’s just at a different angle right there.”
So Scherzer took the mound for the top of the ninth, his pitch count at 92, his team comfortably ahead by 6 runs, history awaiting. Anthony Rendon made a nice catch of Gregory Polanco’s pop-foul for the first out along the railing of the third-base dugout. Denard Span then caught Mercer’s routine fly ball to center for the second out.
As the crowd roared, ready to burst at the seams, Scherzer and Tabata engaged in the toughest at-bat of the day, an 8-pitch battle that included five foul balls (including three straight with two strikes). Realizing he wasn’t going to overpower the Pirates pinch-hitter with a fastball, Scherzer decided to try to sneak a slider around the inside corner of the plate.
Except it didn’t slide enough. Tabata, wearing a protective pad, dropped his elbow and the ball clipped it, leaving everyone in the ballpark in a momentary state of shock.
“I just kinda got in a squat and I wanted to cry,” said Harper, whose towering home run two days after he appeared to suffer a major leg injury became a footnote to this game. “To be honest with you … to be part of a perfect game would’ve been awesome.”
“I know he tried to throw me a slider or something inside,” Tabata said. “But the slider was not broken, there was no break on it. It was right there, and he got me.”
If anyone was clamoring for the Nationals to argue, to claim Tabata didn’t make an attempt to avoid getting hit by the pitch, Matt Williams explained why he didn’t.
“I think that’s irrelevant at this point,” the manager said. “The last thing I’m going to do is walk on the field and mess up Max’s rhythm. That’d be a crying shame. I ain’t doing that.”
Only once in baseball history had a pitcher lost a perfect game with two outs in the ninth by hitting a batter — the previously anonymous Hooks Wiltse of the 1908 New York Giants — so Scherzer legitimately was in rarely charted waters. He managed to compose himself, though, and immediately went after Harrison, coaxing a fly to left out of the Pirates leadoff man, the ball settling into Michael Taylor’s glove and setting off the celebration.
Scherzer’s final numbers were staggering. He threw 82 of his 106 pitches for strikes. He went to a 3-ball count only twice. He went to a 2-ball count only six times.
“I didn’t think they were gonna touch anything he was throwing up there,” Harper said. “I’m sorry, but I just felt that way. The things that he was throwing up there … the 97 mph heater, with slider and changeup and painting every single pitch … I didn’t think they were gonna touch him.”
After it was all over, after the mob scene on the field and the chocolate syrup bath and several rounds of interviews, Scherzer walked back toward the Nationals clubhouse and found his family waiting for him: wife, Erica; mother, Jan; and father, Brad.
Brad and Jan Scherzer had seen their son pitch only once previously this season, and they weren’t originally scheduled to make the trip from St. Louis to D.C. for this one. They were planning to come over July 4th weekend, until a conflict arose and forced them to bump up their visit to this weekend.
As he embraced his son outside the clubhouse, having seen him accomplish what he just did on the third weekend of June, Brad Scherzer didn’t have to think twice about where this moment ranked on his personal list.
“It’s at the top,” the proud papa said. “I’ve seen him pitch no-hitters in Little League, in high school, in college and now in the major leagues. That’s the best. … What a great Father’s Day gift.”
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