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Max Scherzer Carves His Place in MLB History with 20-K Masterpiece

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11:  Max Scherzer #31 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after tying the MLB record for strikeouts in a game with 20 against the Detroit Tigers at Nationals Park on May 11, 2016 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Take a bow, Max Scherzer.

One season after twirling a pair of no-hitters, the Washington Nationals right-hander struck out 20 Detroit Tigers on Wednesday in a 3-2 victory, tying the all-time record for a nine-inning game and carving his place in baseball history.

Scherzer wasn't perfect. Facing his former team for the first time since signing a megadeal with the Nationals in January 2015, he surrendered six hits and a pair of solo home runs, to Jose Iglesias in the third inning and J.D. Martinez in the ninth.

In fact, the Tigers put the tying run on base in the ninth in between Scherzer fanning Miguel Cabrera and Justin Upton to tie the record.

He had a chance to stand alone at the summit of Mount K by fanning James McCann. Instead, McCann grounded out to third to end the game and seal the win.

With his masterpiece, Scherzer joins Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens (who did it twice) as the only big league pitchers to tally 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game. Randy Johnson also accomplished the feat, though the game went beyond nine innings, and Tom Cheney racked up 21 in 16 innings for the Washington Senators in 1962.

Perhaps most impressively, just 23 of Scherzer's 119 pitches were balls, fewer than any of the other pitchers in the 20-whiff club, per ESPN Stats & Info:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Balls Thrown in 20 K Game (9 IP): - Max Scherzer: 23 - Randy Johnson:32 - Kerry Wood: 38 - Roger Clemens (2nd): 50 - Roger Clemens: 41

Pounding the strike zone and making opposing hitters look foolish is nothing new for Scherzer, who won a Cy Young Award with Detroit in 2013 and has struck out 1,045 batters since the start of the 2012 season, second only to Clayton Kershaw in MLB.

Still, seeing the 31-year-old in otherworldly form had to be nice for the Nationals.

Washington is off to an excellent start, but Scherzer has been up and down. He entered Wednesday's start with a 4.60 ERA and was tagged for seven earned runs in his last outing against the potent Chicago Cubs.

What a difference five days makes. No, the Tigers aren't the Cubbies, but they aren't pushovers, either. No one strikes out Cabrera three times without bringing his A-game.

When Scherzer fanned Cabrera for the third time in the ninth, he was still dishing high-90s heat, as Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post noted:

Chelsea Janes @chelsea_janes

Scherzer struck out Cabrera on a 98 mph fastball. 19, a new franchise record.

Scherzer's rotation-mate, Stephen Strasburg, has grabbed headlines after getting off to a strong start and signing a seven-year, $175 million extension.

Strasburg, who's still just 27 years old and oozing with talent, may prove to be the better pitcher going forward. 

But Scherzer just served notice he's not ready to relinquish the No. 1 mantle quite yet. And the Nats, no doubt, will be all too happy to sit back and watch their co-aces duke it out.

Tigers fans may be bitter that their old ace outshone their new ace, former National Jordan Zimmermann, who took the hill for Detroit. And they may be tempted to place some blame at the feet of a lineup that hasn't been as good as advertised.

As ESPN.com's Katie Strang said, however, this one belongs to Scherzer all the way.

"The Tigers battled to the very end," Strang correctly opined, "but were ultimately outclassed by a historic performance by one of the game's elite pitchers."

Scherzer sweetened the deal by making history against his former team.
Scherzer sweetened the deal by making history against his former team.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Just ask the man himself, who made no effort to disguise his carnal pleasure.

"Strikeouts are sexy," Scherzer said, per Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com. "To punch out 20 is sexy."

Chicks dig the swing and miss.

So where does Scherzer's performance rank in the pantheon of dominant pitching performances?

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus put it ahead of Clemens' 20-strikeout games but behind Wood's, per MLB.com's Jason Beck.

You could argue Wednesday's gem wasn't even the most dominant game of Scherzer's career. In last season's no-hitter against the Mets, Scherzer struck out 17. His 104 game score, a metric created by famed statistician Bill James, was the second-highest of all time, per Janes

The highest? Wood's 20-strikeout effort, which earned a 105.

Scherzer's game score Wednesday took a hit because of the two homers he allowed, and came in at 87, per Sporting News' Jesse Spector.

That says as much about the stat's shortcomings as it does about the various performances. The point is, Scherzer is making a habit out of huge moments. He's clearly a man who wants to be remembered by history—and history is going to oblige.

Take a bow, Max Scherzer. And feel free to give us an encore while you're at it.

All statistics current as of May 11 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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