Max Scherzer entered his final start of the 2018 campaign 10 Ks short of 300 overall, having already set his own and the Washington Nationals’ records for strikeouts in a single season.
Scherzer picked up eight Ks in the first six innings, on 84 pitches, and with the end of his outing approaching, the 34-year-old, three-time Cy Young award winner came back out in the seventh and struck out the first two batters he faced, then gave up a single before a fly ball to left field ended his 33rd and final start of the season.
Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez was asked after what ended up a 9-4 win if he’d given any serious consideration to ending Scherzer’s outing before he reached 300 strikeouts?
“I value my life,” he joked. “No.”
He knew Scherzer would reach his goal though.
“He was going to get 10 today somehow,” Martinez explained.
“What an unbelievable accomplishment for him and I’m just happy I got to experience it, really. I can’t say enough about Max.”
Scherzer talked in his own post game press conference about not letting the moment get too big, and how he was able to stay focused and pick up the strikeouts he needed.
“Just stay within yourself,” Scherzer said, “... don’t try to get too caught up in the moment of getting out of myself and spray the ball. Just stay composed and understand what I need to do mechanically to be able to execute pitches, and for me I was trying to execute as much as I could and fortunately enough in that situation when everyone is going nuts, was able to collect that big strikeout.”
His season ended with Scherzer at a 2.53 ERA, the second-lowest of his career, and the sixth-lowest in the majors, a 2.65 FIP that was the lowest of his career, the most Ks, and third-lowest walk total, finishing up at career-best 7.2 FWAR.
Scherzer has talked often since signing in D.C. about wanting to improve every season, which is hard for someone as good as he is, but he managed to again in his mind.
“I thought my curveball improved this year,” Scherzer said, and while opposing hitters’ .283 AVG against the pitch was the highest average against any of his pitches, it is his fifth pitch, and he’s still working on it.
“Made a little tweak to it, and even though I didn’t quite throw it as much, I think it’s a pitch I can continue to develop and something I can continue to feature to help keep hitters off-balance and that’s a pitch that will continue to work for me as long as I can continue to execute and throw it the way that I’m capable of and use it within the sequence. So for me that was a focus coming into this year, was to improve that, seeing how good the curveball is kind of working throughout the game is something that I think I was able to accomplish and I think that was the reason why I was better this year than I have been in the past.”
It’s Scherzer’s determination and focus on the mound and in-between his starts that stood out for Martinez in their first season working together after the manager watched from the opposing dugout for the first ten years of the righty’s career.
“It’s very rare, and it’s not what he’s done this year, but what he’s done the last four or five years,” the one-time major league outfielder said.
“It’s been unbelievable. Like I said, being with him every day in that clubhouse and watching him prepare on a daily basis, I can see why he’s the best, I mean, he really is.
“And his preparation is beyond anything I’ve ever seen on a daily basis.
“He takes pride in everything he does, and wants to be the best at everything, and he’s really good at everything, his hitting, I know he’s talked about being a better bunter and how he can be better for 2019, so he prepares himself really, really well every single day.”
Martinez faced his share of power pitchers in his playing days, and he talked before the final outing of the season for Scherzer, about what it was like going up against a pitch with the ability to pile up strikeouts the way his ace does.
“I didn’t like it,” he said. “You just try to get a ball you can hit, but it’s tough. I can tell you right now, the best ball I hit against Randy Johnson was over the other dugout. I struck out quite a bit. The same thing with [Curt] Schilling. You knew what was coming and you just tried to put the ball in play and hit it hard, same thing with Max, when you listen to other hitters from other teams talk about Max Scherzer, they know it’s game on, he’s coming ready to compete and what he wants to do is strike you out.”
“I know all the attention is on the strikeouts,” Scherzer added after what did end up being his final start of 2018, “... but for me it was also executing pitches throughout the whole night, whether I was behind in the count or [ahead] in the count, I was able to really start using the curveball against righties, that’s something I learned tonight, and for me that’s a step going forward in the right direction and something I can carry into next year.”