On Wednesday night, 35,965 people saw the Nationals play the Tigers in Washington. Jordan Zimmermann was returning home to pitch against his old team. Max Scherzer would face the team for which he won the Cy Young award.
Scherzer tossed a complete game. He threw 119 pitches and allowed two runs.
He also struck out 20. That's only happened four other times in a nine-inning game. Randy Johnson and Kerry Wood each did it once, and Roger Clemens did it twice. That's it. Nobody else. Just those four men and those five games.
Scherzer's 87 Game Score is the lowest of any of the 20-strikeout games. Yet one runs the risk of splitting the frayed ends of a hair with that level of analysis. Instead, let us revel in the fact that one man struck out twenty batters in a single game. Not in a single playoff series, not over the course of consecutive appearances out of the bullpen. One game.
96 of Scherzer's 119 pitches were strikes. 62 of them were fastballs, and 50 of those went for strikes.
Yes, he allowed two home runs, and four other hits. He technically had a 4.15 ERA on the night. But we come here to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The home runs by Jose Iglesias and J.D. Martinez are only inconveniences that tempt us with analytic narrative. They added dramatic tension when Scherzer stood naught but a whisper away from history in the 9th inning with a runner on first base and Washington leading by a single run. The home runs beg us to decry prayers to a false god and point to the fact that Detroit entered the game tied with the Twins for the sixth-highest strikeout rate in the game.
It doesn't matter.
For the purpose of ranking 20-K games and other acts of hilarious dominance, it might matter in the slightest. But for the purposes of watching in wonder as Scherzer cut down batter after batter and chased a little slice of history to put on his mantle next to his two no-hitters, it couldn't matter less.
Baseball is about fun. Sports are about fun, and records are meant to be broken. James McCann's ground ball to end the game prevented Scherzer from standing alone in the gaze of history. Yet doing something for just the fifth time in history is plenty of fun too.
Consider the number 20. When a pitcher notches his tenth strikeout of the game, it is considered a matter of note. Prior to Tuesday's games, Jose Fernandez led all starting pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched in 2016 with a K/9 of 12.84. Scherzer entered with a 9.79 career rate, the same as Clayton Kershaw's, despite 2015 being his fourth consecutive year of blowing past the 200 strikeout mark. There are only 27 outs in a standard-issue nine-inning baseball game. Scherzer took care of 20 of those outs with strikeouts.
Scherzer: "Strikeouts are sexy. To be able to punch out 20, it's sexy"— Jamal Collier (@JamalCollier) May 12, 2016
Despite what Crash Davis may tells us about strikeouts being undemocratic and therefore somewhat amoral, the strikeout is the ultimate and sexiest assertion of pitching dominance. Here is my pitch, the man on the mound says. Now try to hit the damn thing. Good luck. The K isn't just about blowing the hitter away. It's about location, and movement, and out-thinking and second- and third-guessing. It's about guile, and a careful yet cutthroat execution of the batter by a liberal application of Here is my pitch, now try to hit the damn thing. Good luck. Or, sometimes, Here is my pitch, should you swing at it? You damn well should have.
The Tigers hit the damn thing six times on Wednesday. Two times, they hit the damn thing over the fence. That didn't stop Max Scherzer from setting fire to the lineup and making them look like fools 20 times. Or was it more that he showed that he was better than them 20 times? Perhaps a little of both.
Now, when Kerry Wood is spoken of, when Clemens and Johnson are spoken of, so too will they speak of Scherzer.