When Max Scherzer painted his 1-hit, 16-strikeout masterpiece last week in Milwaukee, the thought immediately came to mind that we might have just witnessed the best pitching performance in Nationals history. And then six days later, Scherzer perhaps topped that masterpiece with his almost-perfect-game-still-no-hitter against the Pirates.
Which leaves me now wondering what exactly is the greatest pitching performance in Nats history? There are several candidates, including several within the last nine months. But there are a few from farther back in the franchise's decade in D.C. that deserve some consideration, as well.
So let's try to rank them, 1 through 5, using both statistical and emotional evidence to put together a full comprehensive list. There's certainly room for debate with these, but here is one mere reporter's opinion...
5. JOHN PATTERSON, AUG. 4, 2005 vs. DODGERS
Final line: 9 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 K, 116 pitches, 84 strikes
Bill James' Game Score: 92
Comment: Back in the summer of 2005, D.C. had fallen in love again with an old friend: Baseball. The Nationals' inaugural season would've been enough for most local fans who had waited 33 long years to have a hometown ballclub of their own. But then the Nats burst out to a 50-31 record during the season's first half, holding first place in the NL East at the All-Star break and turning RFK Stadium into a magical place on a nightly basis. The rest of that summer (and fall) turned sour, with the Nats going 31-50 over the second half to finish at .500 and in last place in the division. But Patterson's performance on this sweltering August night remains one of the most memorable in club history. The talented-but-enigmatic right-hander was on a crazy role that summer, with a 1.02 ERA and 54 strikeouts over a stretch of six starts, and this was the best of them. Patterson struck out 13 Dodgers during a 4-hit shutout. He didn't walk a batter. The Nats rode that performance plus a grand slam from Brad Wilkerson to a 7-0 victory before a crowd of 35,484. And Patterson was on top of the world. "It's been an amazing year," he said. "The dream I had coming into this season was to play just like this, and it's working. ... This is what I've always believed that I could do." He didn't do it much longer, but he (and Nats fans) will always have the memories of this night.
4. STEPHEN STRASBURG, JUNE 8, 2010 vs. PIRATES
Final line: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 14 K, 94 pitches, 65 strikes
Bill James' Game Score: 75
Comment: Not very long ago, Stephen Strasburg's debut stood as the best performance in Nationals history, and there was no debate to be had about it. It has since been surpassed by three other games, but that doesn't diminish at all what the young right-hander did on that magical June night in 2010. Taking the mound with more hype and expectation than anybody (pitcher or position player) ever had for his big-league debut, Strasburg somehow managed to exceed it all with a performance well beyond what anybody could have imagined. He struck out 14 batters, establishing a club record that stood until one week ago, and he did so despite pitching only seven innings. He became the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out at least 10 batters without walking any in his debut. And he brought so much joy to every one of the 40,315 in attendance at Nationals Park, who perhaps for the first time truly felt like their team was on a path toward something special.
3. JORDAN ZIMMERMANN, SEPT. 28, 2014 vs. MARLINS
Final line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K, 104 pitches, 79 strikes
Bill James' Game Score: 96
Comment: This one stood as the unquestioned best performance in club history until only one week ago. On the final day of the regular season last September, Zimmermann authored the first no-hitter in Nats history, the first no-hitter by a Washington pitcher since 1931. The right-hander was brilliant throughout, issuing only a fifth-inning walk to Justin Bour. But things got strange as the game proceeded. Because it was the final day of the season and there was nothing at stake (in the standings, at least) Matt Williams stuck with his plan to remove all of his regular position players at various points along the way. Which meant when Zimmermann took the mound for the ninth inning, only catcher Wilson Ramos remained from the starting lineup. That proved fortuitous, though, because who knows what would have happened had rookie Steven Souza Jr. not been inserted into left field at the start of the ninth. Turns out it was Souza who saved Zimmermann's no-hitter with a dramatic, diving catch of Christian Yelich's drive to deep left-center. Zimmermann's reaction — from dejected slumped shoulders to arms raised jubilation — perfectly captured a moment no one will ever forget.
2. MAX SCHERZER, JUNE 14, 2015 at BREWERS
Final line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 16 K, 119 pitches, 86 strikes
Bill James' Game Score: 100
Comment: No, it wasn't a no-hitter, but Scherzer's start last week in Milwaukee was better than Zimmermann's no-no nine months earlier. Seriously. He struck out 16 batters, shattering Strasburg's club record. He issued one walk (in the bottom of the eighth). And the one hit he allowed was a broken-bat blooper to shallow right field by Carlos Gomez. Yelich smoked that ball off Zimmermann in the ninth inning last September, denied only by Souza's brilliant catch. Nobody in Milwaukee hit the ball hard off Scherzer. And though it's not the only measurement of pitching excellence, Scherzer's Game Score of 100 in a 9-inning start has been topped only five times in baseball history. This was the best pitching performance in Nationals history, until...
1. MAX SCHERZER, JUNE 20, 2015 vs. PIRATES
Final line: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 HBP, 10 K, 106 pitches, 82 strikes
Bill James' Game Score: 97
Comment: OK, so Scherzer's Game Score on Saturday actually went down to a mere 97. Like I said, that's only one way to measure a pitching performance. Let's be honest: This one had to top the previous one, because of the big, fat zero in the hit column. And because of the fact that if not for that one errant 2-2 slider to Jose Tabata with two outs in the ninth, if not for Tabata's elbow finding its way into the path of the ball, this might well have been the 24th perfect game in baseball history, the first by anybody wearing a Washington uniform or wearing another city's uniform while pitching in Washington. It was simply phenomenal. The Pirates had no chance. Really, there weren't any really close calls. Yes, Danny Espinosa made a nice play on Pedro Alvarez's grounder to the shifted right side of the infield. But there was no diving catch, no smoked line drive that somebody miraculously caught. Scherzer on Saturday was as good as you can get. And so he earns the award for Best Pitching Performance in Nationals History.
Honorable mention: Ramon Ortiz carries a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Cardinals on Sept. 4, 2006; Jordan Zimmermann throws a 2-hit, 12-strikeout shutout in San Diego on June 8, 2014; Gio Gonzalez throws a 1-hitter (a chopper over Adam LaRoche's head at first base) in New York on Sept. 9, 2013; Pedro Astacio throws a 2-hit shutout over the Braves at RFK Stadium, needing only 89 pitches, on Aug. 15, 2006.