WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer provided the unforgettable visual on June 2, camera squared on his face and a single effective word launched from his mouth. “No!”
Davey Martinez was approaching from the dugout. Scherzer had struck out a batter for the 14th time before Martinez began his advance. It took nine pitches, including a final slider. His pitch count hit 117. Joey Votto was coming up. Martinez stepped on to the dirt of the mound while greeted by a sneer.
This scenario is one for lore. Angry, ornery ace refuses to leave his mound. Manager absorbs kickback. It fits Scherzer’s personality and the narrative developed by it. In fact, he was doing this as far back as college at Missouri. Top of the ninth, Tigers lead 2-1, two outs, coach Tim Jamieson approaches.
“In the ninth inning, he struck out the first two batters, then they pinch-hit a guy with slider bat speed,” Jamieson said. “He wasn’t going to catch up to Max’s fastball but if Max would make a mistake in college, it was with his breaking stuff.
“So, I went out to the mound to tell him stick with the fastball, this guy can turn around a slider but can’t touch a fastball," he continued. "He thought I was taking him out of the game. So, he basically meets me with his chest out on the grass and basically says, ‘I’m finishing this game.’ I explained why I was there. Three 97-mph fastballs later, the game was over.”
The mound conversation is more complicated now. Yes, Scherzer has sniped at managers when they come to remove him. However, the reason isn’t just because he’s mad in the moment without other considerations. Like most of what he does, a plan was in place with multiple factors influencing it. He’s not yelling just to yell.
“The thing is everybody is going to remember the one time I told Davey, ‘No,’” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “But there’s so much more into that exchange than just no. I had already taken into account the schedule, off-days, where I was at, lineups, scoreboard, who’s coming up...we had already discussed that. So, there’s so much more behind it that led to that moment when I knew for myself -- I knew was able to still compete. That’s just one exchange. There’s so many other exchanges that you guys don’t see, that we don’t talk about or anything like that that are really us going back and forth sometimes where he’s pressing me.”
The mound conversation -- or lack thereof -- is an extrapolation of status, fatigue and dugout chats. Erick Fedde tried to tell Martinez earlier this season he wasn’t coming out. It was an ill-fated attempt which later produced chuckles. Martinez even mentioned it in a press conference. Joe Ross laughed twice when told (“That’s pretty funny. That’s a good one.”). Scherzer smirked. Fedde smiled, then explained his failed conversation from Aug. 5 against San Francisco.
“You know he has the final say,” Fedde said. “You just want to give him a heads up for days you don’t feel good and days you do feel good. I think the day in [Cincinnati, the next start], that was a day I was for sure done. I had maybe not my best stuff. I thought against San Francisco, my stuff was really good and I still felt strong. I think that’s where Max and all those guys will say the same thing. They can tell their body better than anyone else.”
Which is part of Scherzer’s point on the infamous “No” day. Even with Votto coming up, Scherzer knew what his body was telling him. He also knew that was a day to push for extra pitches -- eventually arriving at a season-high 120. But, there are two other points to consider: Martinez adds onlookers don’t see the words coming out of his mouth. He’s not just a public punching bag. He’s delivering stern tones himself. And, there are times when he does the pushing in the dugout.
“In San Diego when I took the ball off the foot,” Scherzer said. “I threw six innings, I was going to hit, I thought I was going to be out of the game. I kind of just mentally thought, ‘Hey, my spot’s going to be coming up, I was going to be good.’ And he’s sitting there telling me, ‘Hey, you look good. You’re still in there.’ I was like, ‘Really? You’re going to want me to still be in there?’ ‘You’re throwing the ball fine. Go.’ That exchange never gets play.
“There are times, where he will definitely -- like in that example -- where he’s actually pushing me. There’s other times where we’re just going back and forth, what’s the situation, what’s this game. There are times I know myself, I’m kind of at my limit here of what the pitch count is that day; where I’ve kind of had in my head going into it of where I’d be.”
Even Scherzer had to wind his way into talk-back territory. He landed in Detroit following an early-career trade from Arizona. There, cigarette-smoking, 65-year-old Jim Leyland awaited in the manager’s office. Scherzer was 25, entering his second full season and still undefined in the major leagues. Leyland started his MLB managing career when Scherzer was two years old.
There was no haggling -- even if he wanted to. Leyland never made mound visits for discussions. Instead, his aging gate brought him out of the dugout only for transactional purposes. Pitcher A was coming out. Pitcher B was coming in. The end.
“Every point in time early in my career, when the manager came out, they would always pull you,” Scherzer said. “It was a much different way to handle it. As I kind of got deeper in my career, there were times the manager would come out and just check to see how I was doing. It kind of catches you off guard. You’re not here to pull me? You’re checking to see how I’m doing? Really? [laughs] You’re checking to see how I’m doing? I’m doing great. I’m OK, I’ve still got something left in the tank. I guess that kind of happened more and more.
“I think it takes time for the manager -- especially as a young player -- to gain that trust, that you have to go through all those other experiences of saying yes, saying no and going through all those to be able to really have the conversation on the mound, for the manager to have your trust in that situation. It’s different now that I have so many years in the league and I’ve been through so many different scenarios that I’m very in tune with what the manager’s thinking so we can make the best decision.”
Ross understands he remains in that development stage when it comes to articulation on the mound. He has not attempted what Fedde did. Not even in the minor leagues. Instead, he sees the manager, knows his time is up and keeps his thoughts to himself.
“For myself, when he comes to get me, he comes to get me,” Ross said. “Obviously, I think some of these other guys are in the right to lobby their case of wanting to stay on the mound. I think everyone is thinking the same thing when he comes out there -- ‘I want to stay in the game.’ But, for me, I don’t think I’ve really earned that right to attempt to put my foot down. But, there’s definitely times where comes out and, on the inside, I want to stay in. But, he’s made his decision and pointed to the bullpen so I can’t do anything about it.”
Scherzer’s demonstrativeness doesn’t trickle down to his other veteran rotation mates. Stephen Strasburg may shoot a glare, but he is generally silent when Martinez -- or any manager -- approaches. Patrick Corbin is not prone to verbal outbursts in any situation, let alone when he is in the middle of a stadium. They both have “earned” the status to grumble if they chose to. And, like Ross mentioned, they may feel the desire to.
“I think everyone handles it a little differently,” Corbin said. “I think Max knows and a lot of us know if we’re feeling good, we want to stay in and try to get out of an inning. You never want to come out with guys on base. You want to finish the inning you started. I think people just handle it differently. Davey’s great about just talking it through.”
“I don’t really like, for me personally, I don’t really like to show up the manager that way,” Strasburg said. “Davey’s always been good at communicating. If he asks me how I’m feeling, if I tell him I’m good, I think he’s shown he’s going to give me a chance to get out of it. It comes with the territory. I try to go as long as I can as hard as I can until he takes the ball out of my hands.”
Martinez understands. He watched pitchers do it during his playing career, he held conversations with them when he was the bench coach in Tampa and Chicago. Now in Washington, he takes the direct blows, whether from a young guy overstepping his bounds or a Hall-of-Fame-bound pitcher delivering a viral moment in his face.
Yelling “No!” is the easy part. Everything leading up to it is more complicated.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS: