Al­most per­fect

In of­fer­ing such a big con­tract, Nats’ wish was Scherzer’s ‘com­mand’

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BARRY SVRLUGA

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.

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

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.”

PHOTOS BY JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

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.

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