Max it out!

Last Sunday in Milwaukee, Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals took a perfect game into the seventh inning. Then, Carlos Gomez, leading off the inning, dropped a broken-bat single into shallow right field.

Scherzer allowed no other hits, but walked Scooter Gennett in the eighth. In the end, he retired 27 of the 29 hitters he faced, striking out 16 of them.

All things considered, it was the best game I’ve ever seen pitched.

Nats manager Matt Williams, who hasn’t gotten much right this year, said after the game, “I wouldn’t imagine that that’s going to be the last opportunity that he’s going to have to do something special.” Truer words were never spoken.

Today, in his very next appearance, Scherzer took a perfect game into the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sixty years as a sports fan have taught me to expect the worst. But watching Scherzer on the mound as the ninth began, looking like a hunter stalking prey, I would have bet a considerable amount of money that he would get his perfect game.

The first two batters went down meekly. Down to their last out (and trailing 6-0) the Bucs sent up Jose Tabata to pinch hit.

Scherzer quickly got ahead 0-2, but Tabata took two balls to even the count. He then fouled off three fastballs, each around 95 miles per hour.

Before the next pitch, Scherzer shook off the sign from Wilson Ramos, deciding to throw some kind of off-speed breaking ball. It was logical decision. Tabata seemed locked in on the hard stuff, and at 2-2 in the count, Scherzer could still afford to miss the strike zone.

Unfortunately, Scherzer missed inside. Tabata dropped his elbow into the pitch, and was awarded first base.

No perfect game, but Max retired the next batter to claim a no-hitter. He struck out 10 Pirates.

The Nats TV color commentator suggested that there’s an unwritten rule against breaking up a perfect game this late, when your team isn’t in contention, by deliberately being hit by a pitch. I don’t know about that. However, there’s a written rule (Rule 608(b)) against awarding first base to a batter who is hit by a pitch he makes no attempt to avoid, unless he had no opportunity to avoid it. Unfortunately, the rule is almost never enforced.

The lesson, I suppose, is that if you’re seeking a perfect game and your team is well ahead, it’s better not to pitch inside. But if you do, throw a fastball. Few, if any, batters want to rain on your parade badly enough to be hit by a 95 miles per hour pitch.

Scherzer becomes only the fifth pitcher, and the first since 1944, to allow one hit or fewer over two consecutive complete games. His totals during this span are:

Innings pitched: 18
Runs allowed: 0
Hits allowed: 1
Walks allowed: 1
Hit batsmen: 1
Strikeouts: 26

I’ll leave it to others to do the hard research, but I suspect they won’t find back-to-back starts as impressive as Scherzer’s. Sure, Johnny Vander Meer threw back-to-back no hitters in 1938. But he walked 11 batters (the same number he struck out). And keep in mind that the one hit Scherzer allowed was a broken bat bloop.

Once in a great while in baseball a team you follow acquires an outstanding player who turns out, when you watch him on a regular basis, to be even better than you expected. Roberto Alomar, now in the Hall of Fame, was like that when he first joined the Baltimore Orioles.

Max Scherzer is another example. He came to Washington with a big reputation and a brilliant win-loss record in the previous two years, but no season with an ERA lower than 2.90. I expected big things, but nothing like the season he’s had so far.

Long may it continue.


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