Max Scherzer was one strike away on Saturday afternoon from becoming just the 24th pitcher in Major League Baseball history to throw a perfect game. One strike was all he needed before an inside slider didn't break and instead bounced of the elbow of a pinch-hitting Jose Tabata.
Tabata came off the Pirates' bench to work a 2-2 count by fouling off five balls in an eight-pitch at-bat. Then Scherzer hit him and lost his perfect game before retiring the very next batter to secure his first no-hitter.
A no-hitter is a fantastic accomplishment and it had only been done once before in Nationals' history. But a perfect game is a perfect game, and whether Tabata tried hard enough to elude the inside pitch became a point of contention afterwards.
Tabata didn't bite when asked if he leaned into the pitch, and described it as just a slider that simply didn't break.
"When I see that, I was like 'wow,'" he said. "It got me in the elbow. I had a protector on the elbow. I know he tried to throw me a slider or something inside. But the slider was not broken, there was no break on it. It was right there and he got me."
Nationals' catcher Wilson Ramos had as good a view as anybody on the play and saw replays afterwards in the clubhouse. He thought Tabata's elbow was in the strike zone. Rule 6.08 in the MLB rulebook states that a player must make an honest effort to avoid a pitch to be awarded a base after getting hit.
"That ball was a little bit in the strike zone, that's what I saw in the videos," Ramos said. "But that happens in baseball. [Scherzer] never put his head down. He got mad in that moment, but right away just get the ball back to him and he attacked the next hitter really well. That was an amazing job for him. All the credit for him."
Manager Matt Williams said he didn't argue the call in part due to Scherzer still carrying a no-hitter.
"I think that's irrelevant at this point. The last thing I'm going to do is walk on the field and mess up Max's rhythm. That'd be a crying shame. I ain't doing that," he said.
Scherzer became just the second pitcher ever to lose a perfect game 8 2/3 innings into his start on a HBP. The last time that happened was 1908. He is just the third pitcher in MLB history to lose a a perfect game after 26 outs and still complete a no-hitter. The last time that happened was 1972.
What happened on Saturday in the Nats' 6-0 win was nothing short of extraordinary, even though he fell short of perfection. Pirates players and manager Clint Hurdle couldn't help but tip their cap.
"You need to find it in your baseball heart to appreciate that performance," Hurdle said. "We didn't feel like the walk was in play today with the way he was throwing."
"Unfortunately we had to see that happen against us today, but I'm just happy for him," Pirates starter Francisco Liriano said. "I'm just happy for him. That's not easy to do. There's a lot of pressure for him."
"It was just one of those things where he had everything going for him," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "He was 93-95 early and then 96-98 late. Just good stuff."
Despite breaking up Scherzer's perfect game, Tabata was still able to appreciate Scherzer's accomplishment:
"Baseball, everything happens. I can say good for him. He got a no-no. That's all I can say."