In offering such a big contract, Nats’ wish was Scherzer’s ‘command’
Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer celebrates his nohitter with catcher Wilson Ramos. Scherzer was one out from a perfect game when he hit Pittsburgh’s Jose Tabata with a pitch. View a photo gallery and social media reaction at wapo.st/sports. Plus, more coverage,
When there’s snow on the ground and the heating bills are astronomical, it’s easy to watch a baseball team agree to write checks totaling $210 million over seven years and label it some combination of extravagant and irresponsible. What are the Washington Nationals going to do with another starting pitcher? Such are winter laments.
But on a 91-degree day in June, January assessments seem so dated. This is what $210 million buys you: Max Scherzer, in his prime. Don’t like seven-year contracts for pitchers? Fine. A reasonable assessment, one shared even by the general manager of the club with which Scherzer signed.
The seventh year of such a deal,
though, doesn’t matter in Year 1. What matters is what Scherzer is doing at the moment, firing minuscule pebbles at batters that can hardly be seen and can scarcely be hit. Saturday came the first no-hitter of his career, a treasure of a 6- 0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates that was one fraction of Jose Tabata’s elbow away from being the first perfect game in Nationals history.
That followed his 16strikeout, one-hit shutout in Milwaukee on Sunday, making hitters 1 for 55 against him in his last two starts.
His ERA is down to 1.76. Opposing batters are hitting .181 against him. He has 123 strikeouts and 14 walks. With Doug Fister just back from the disabled list and Stephen Strasburg still on it, Scherzer could well be not just the best pitcher on the staff but the best in the game.
So $210 million? Sure. Seems reasonable. Where would the Nationals be without him?
“He’s worth every penny he gets,” said right fielder Bryce Harper, who someday may have such assessments pointed his way.
What Scherzer has done in his first 21/2 months in Washington is immediately ingratiate himself in a situation previously foreign to him, plopping down in the most prominent chair without a hint of awkwardness. Don’t undersell how difficult that could be. When he walked into the clubhouse in spring training, the established group that met him could have done so warily. Who’s this outsider getting all this money, money that might have been used to re-sign shortstop Ian Desmond and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann?
Yet there was Scherzer, running the NCAA tournament pool. And when the season began, there he was on his off days, pumping his fist in the dugout when his teammates came through.
“He gelled right away,” said his wife, Erica-May Scherzer, who has known Max since their college days at Missouri. “He loves the guys, and the guys love him. It’s been a perfect fit.”
That part doesn’t matter as much to the masses — including the 41,104 who made up a sellout crowd Saturday at Nationals Park — as the on-field performance. But name, right now, a more entertaining pitcher to watch? As Strasburg struggled and went to the disabled list, as Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez have failed to replicate their career numbers, it has become Scherzer’s starts to which an entire fan base looks forward.
“We can’t expect that every time,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said.
Of course not. But every fifth day, he presents the possibility.
“We’ve got a prime-time pitcher in the prime of his career,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said in the home clubhouse Saturday evening. “He’s been through the wars and at a young age has performed at the highest level.
“We always have a plan, a strategy, for this year and beyond, and he fits both of those strategies. He’s a number one pitcher on a championshipcaliber staff. He is today, and he will be in the future.”
Today, not 2020, matters right now because with a win and a loss by the Mets, the Nationals would be back where they expected to be: first place. Scherzer’s parents, Brad and Jan, were in town to see him pitch for the first time since opening day, and they sat with Erica in Section 121. Max Scherzer is a superstitious sort. His family falls in line with him. “It’s bad,” Erica said. “I don’t drink water when he’s pitching,” Brad said.
“I have lots of little hand things going on,” Erica said. “Where you sit. Don’t leave your seat. Some people get chatty. Some don’t talk. We had them all.”
“But you could see the look on his face,” Brad said.
It is a look that, in June of his first season in town, is already familiar here. As relaxed as Scherzer is on the days he doesn’t pitch, when it’s his turn, he struts around the infield and storms up the back of the mound. He is a star, fully aware. Williams used one word — “command” — to describe Scherzer’s strength. He meant with his pitches. But it also applies to his presence.
“He’s the leader of the rotation,” Rizzo said. “We figured he would be when we signed him. This stuff? It never gets old. You’re on the edge of your seat. And let’s not forget: He did it in a midst of a game that we really needed, when we weren’t playing that great. The win is huge. The way he did it is epic.”
And yet somehow, it was tinged with the tiniest bit of what-might-have-been. The only hit Scherzer allowed against Milwaukee was a floater of a single by Carlos Gomez leading off the seventh, a ball barely out of the reach of Anthony Rendon, who played second base that day.
On Saturday, after he got the first two outs of the ninth, the Pirates sent up Tabata to hit in the pitcher’s spot, the 27th man Scherzer faced. Tabata fouled off a fastball and a slider and worked the count to 1-2. Scherzer said he “tried to throw absolutely everything into” his next pitch, a 97-mph fastball that sailed high in the zone. Tabata laid off, then fouled off three straight two-strike pitches.
The eighth pitch of the at-bat, the 103rd of Scherzer’s day, was a slider that ran in on Tabata.
“Backed up on me,” Scherzer said, “and just clipped him.”
What if Rendon had somehow gotten to Gomez’s ball? What if Tabata had simply moved out of the way of that slider? Hasn’t Scherzer thought about how close he was to back-to-back nohitters?
“That’s a negative thought,” Scherzer said. “Why would I have a negative thought? Let’s have a positive thought: I’m just going to get the next guy out. Your only focus in these situations is: What are you going to do next?”
It is a reasonable question to ask a guy who has allowed one hit to the last 57 batters he has faced. In the summer of 2015, $210 million seems a fair price, particularly when, five days later, we get to watch him again to see what he might do next.
NATIONALS 6, PIRATES 0: “It was pretty exhausting out there,” Max Scherzer said after following up a 16-strikeout one-hitter with a no-hitter. “It was nice and hot and humid.”
Max Scherzer is doused with chocolate sauce by teammates BryceHarper, right, and JaysonWerth, left. “He’s worth every penny he gets,” Harper said of Scherzer.
TOP: In his past two starts, opposing batters are 1 for 55 against Scherzer. His ERA has dropped to 1.76.
ABOVE: Nationals fans give the pitcher a thumbs-up. Scherzer signed a seven-year deal worth $210 million in the offseason.