Updated at 11:45 p.m.
PHILADELPHIA — His name has stood the test of time, known to hardcore baseball aficionados and even a fair share of casual fans if only for the remarkable feat he accomplished 77 long years ago, a feat that has stood intact all these decades and rarely has been threatened since.
There’s a reason Johnny Vander Meer is etched into baseball lore, because what he did in the summer of 1938 for the Cincinnati Reds — pitch back-to-back no-hitters — is really, really, really, really hard to do.
But boy did Max Scherzer give it his best effort Friday night at Citizens Bank Park.
Scherzer didn’t do the impossible, but he still did something only a handful of others have done in baseball history. He carried a perfect game into the sixth inning for the third straight start. And he came within nine outs of joining the great Vander Meer atop the mountain of pitching dominance.
“It just seems so improbable, to be able to do that,” Scherzer said. “You’re really speechless to even be mentioned with that.”
In the end, Scherzer settled for merely a great start, not a historic one. His eight innings of 2-run, 5-hit ball were more than enough to lead the Nationals to a 5-2 victory over the Phillies, their seventh straight win during a run that has been defined by brilliant work on the mound.
Freddy Galvis, the Phillies’ .257-hitting shortstop, was the man who thwarted Scherzer’s bid for history. His 1-out double down the right-field line in the bottom of the sixth represented Philadelphia’s first baserunner of the night and the first hit off Scherzer in a long, long time.
“Off the bat, you’re like: It’s a hit,” right fielder Matt den Dekker said. “That doesn’t happen much.”
No, it doesn’t. From a stretch that began with Carlos Gomez’s broken-bat bloop single in the seventh inning at Miller Park on June 14 and ended with Galvis’ double on Friday night, Scherzer faced 54 major-league batters and retired 52 of them. The only two to reach base during that span: Scooter Gennett via a walk and Jose Tabata via a controversial hit-by-pitch.
“It’s just complete comfort, dominance, throwing the ball where he wants it,” manager Matt Williams said. “Fifty-four batters between hits? Pretty good.”
There’s always extra anticipation when a pitcher takes the mound following a no-hitter, but it felt like there was even more than usual in the air Friday as the crowd of 22,292 began to settle in at Citizens Bank Park. The odds of one no-no, let again two in a row, are extremely low on any given night, but if ever the stars were aligned in a pitcher’s favor, this was it.
Not only was Scherzer on an incredible roll that began with his 1-hit, 16-strikeout masterpiece in Milwaukee 12 days earlier and continued Saturday with his no-hitter against the Pirates, he was facing a Phillies club primed for something bad to happen. Already owners of the worst record in baseball, with one of the sport’s least-productive lineups, they began their day with news that embattled manager Ryne Sandberg had resigned, holding a news conference before ever speaking to his players.
So with all that hovering over the ballpark, Scherzer took the mound at 7:19 p.m., the Nationals already up 1-0, and began his quest for history. And almost immediately, it became apparent he had what it would take to make a serious run at it.
Scherzer retired the side in the bottom of the first on six pitches, all strikes. He retired the side in the second on nine pitches, mixing in three balls just to prove he’s actually human.
And so it proceeded, the Phillies sending three men to the plate each inning, Scherzer retiring all three each time. He did it in the third. He did it in the fourth. He did it in the fifth.
By the time Scherzer took the mound for the bottom of the sixth, his pitch count was a meager 48. The Nationals held a 5-0 lead. He was, as he has been throughout this remarkable run, in complete, utter control.
“It’s a little stressful sometimes when he’s got the no-hitter going,” said Michael Taylor, who had to track down a couple of balls hit to deep center field on Friday. “But other than that, it’s pretty amazing what he’s been doing.”
So amazing that the mere sight of a batted ball landing on turf was a shock to the system.
With one out in the sixth, Scherzer hung a 1-1 curveball to Galvis, then watched as the diminutive shortstop roped the ball down the right-field line, reaching the fence on one hop and coasting into second base with a double.
“I made a mistake,” Scherzer said. “Eventually, I was going to run out of luck. You just move on. You just focus on the next hitter and how you’re going to get out of the next inning, and the guys you’ve got to face. Is it a letdown? Yes. But at the same time, your focus is to win the ballgame. And that’s the first and foremost thing you have to worry about. So for me, it was just bearing down and trying to find a way to get out of that inning with no runs.”
Scherzer did get out of the sixth unscathed, but he couldn’t get out of the seventh. Cesar Hernandez and Domonic Brown each doubled to give the Phillies a run, notable for the fact it ended two remarkable streaks of consecutive scoreless innings pitched: Scherzer went 24 2/3 innings on his own; the Nationals’ rotation went 48 innings combined, the second-longest streak in baseball since 1961.
His pitch count at 93, Scherzer could have called it a night at that point. He wanted to return for the eighth, though, and Williams complied.
“We had a conversation in the dugout, in the tunnel, after the seventh,” Williams said. “We trust him and what he tells us. And he was good to go out for another one.”
Scherzer made it through the eighth, though he did surrender another run (a solo homer by the slap-hitting Ben Revere) before finally wrapping his start up at an even 100 pitches, putting him in line to record his 100th career win.
“It means something,” Scherzer said. “To be able to win 100 ballgames in The Show, it’s special.”
The final tally on Scherzer’s run of excellence: 17 1/3 innings without allowing a hit, only two men reaching base at all during that time. Over his last three starts in total, he has allowed two runs on six hits, striking out 33 while walking only one in 26 innings.
To the outsider, it looks automatic. To Scherzer, it has been anything but.
“Oh, god no,” he insisted. “Those guys are good. This is tough.”
It is indeed tough. There’s a reason only one man in the long and storied history of this great game has pitched consecutive no-hitters. But anyone at Citizens Bank Park could be excused for believing, even for only a fleeting moment, that it could happen on this night.
“Actually, I was,” Taylor said. “I mean, he’s throwing so good, making good pitches. I thought he was going to do it again.”