Before Wednesday night, many Nationals fans and baseball pundits were probably wondering what happened to the old Max Scherzer.
In his previous seven previous starts this season, the 31-year-old right hander was allowing home runs at an alarming rate, amassed nearly half his walk total from 2015, and simply didn't look much like the former Cy Young winner that the Nats gave a seven-year, $210 million contract to two winters ago. So coming off what was perhaps his worst outing of his Washington tenure vs. the Chicago Cubs a week ago, it was fair to wonder if the usually fiery Scherzer would be over-amped to rebound against his former team in the Detroit Tigers.
But in the first inning, after he blew away J.D. Martinez and Miguel Cabrera on a pair of fastballs, there was a sense that this could be a different kind of night.
"The first inning, I ran in and I said to [Jayson Werth], ‘That’s Max.’" Bryce Harper said.
What Harper and the Nats saw the rest of the way was indeed vintage Scherzer — as in, Mad Max — the guy who last season struck out 16 Milwaukee Brewers only to follow that performance up with a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The guy who added a second no-no to his resume later that year against the New York Mets. And on Wednesday night in front of an electric Nats Park crowd, the guy who would tie a major league record with 20 strikeouts in a complete-game win, adding another legendary outing to his short but already-accomplished stint in D.C.
"Man, he was fun to watch tonight," Daniel Murphy said. "Just dominant."
"That's the best performance I've seen in person," added manager Dusty Baker. "It was very nerve-wracking."
The anxiety for those in the ballpark was twofold; not only was the game's outcome far from certain — the Nats never had more than a two-run lead all night — but players could sense that history was on the horizon as the later innings approached.
"I wasn't too aware the total of the strikeouts until I looked at the board at some point and it said 17 strikeouts," Wilson Ramos said through an interpreter, "and that's when it started actually hitting me a little bit."
Ramos said from that point forward, he started calling the game with an eye on the strikeout total, working with Scherzer to induce swing-and-misses rather than balls that could be put in play. And when the 20 strikeout feat was achieved in the ninth inning, the Nats' 28-year-old catcher could lay claim to being apart of another historic outing to go along with all three of the franchise's no-hitters.
"It's obviously up there," Ramos said of the performance. "Despite the couple of no hitters that I caught, 20 strikeouts is a major league record as well, so it's just as impressive as any of the no-hitters that I've caught."
Time will tell if Scherzer will be able to parlay Wednesday's outing into an extended run of dominance. For one night, however, he reminded his teammates and the rest of the baseball world why he's worth the price of admission.
"Every time he goes out there, you never know what’s going to happen," Harper said. "That’s why he’s so special, and that’s why I think he’s one of the best in baseball."