WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Detroit Tigers had their best pitcher on the mound, their former Triple Crown winner back in the lineup and their scuffling star breaking through a protracted slump. Even still, they could not solve Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer.
What was it like facing their former teammate on Wednesday?
"It was like a horror film," outfielder J.D. Martinez said.
The former Tigers pitcher was absolutely blistering in his dominance of his former team, as he tied the major league record with 20 strikeouts in a complete-game performance in the Nationals’ 3-2 win. Scherzer became only the fourth pitcher in league history to strike out 20 in nine innings. He joined the ranks of Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens, who accomplished the feat twice.
Miguel Cabrera, the reigning American League batting champion, struck out three times in four at-bats against Scherzer. It was unlike anything he had witnessed before.
"He was just different. He got 20 strikeouts. That's special. How many times they do that in the big leagues? Five? How many years they been playing this game?" a visibly frustrated Cabrera asked. "It was just special. I've never seen him throw the ball like that."
As stellar as Jordan Zimmermann has been for the Tigers this season -- he was sharp again in his seventh start of the season -- he was no match for the brilliance of his old teammate.
Scherzer was dealing from the beginning. He fanned eight of his first 11 batters through the first three innings. Victor Martinez scraped a base hit off him in the second inning, and though few would have guessed it, shortstop Jose Iglesias went deep against him for a solo homer in the third. Even so, Scherzer got only stronger as the game went on.
After giving up another base hit to Martinez and a deep double to center to Justin Upton (which snapped an 0-for-19 skid) in the seventh, Scherzer shut the door with a flourish by fanning the next five batters.
"He had his changeup, his slider -- he blends everything so well -- and his fastball is so electric that you kind of have to cheat on it," J.D. Martinez said. "He's one of those guys where, even when he misses, his stuff is still that good where he can get it by you."
When Scherzer struck out the side in the eighth, he left the mound to a well-deserved and raucous standing ovation, an acknowledgement of the night’s mighty achievement: Scherzer had set both club and franchise records.
"What wasn't working?" manager Brad Ausmus said of the performance. "The answer is nothing."
The Tigers made a late push in the ninth, with a leadoff home run from J.D. Martinez and a base hit from Victor Martinez (the only Tiger with multiple hits against Scherzer and the only starter who did not strike out) to put the tying run on, but Scherzer returned to form to put them away. After fanning Upton, Scherzer had a chance to break the record, but James McCann grounded to third for the final out.
Nick Castellanos, who was given the day off despite hitting home runs in the first two games of the series, never got an opportunity to pinch hit, and ended the game in the on-deck circle.
"First base was open [in the seventh]. They'd have walked him," Ausmus explained. "In the ninth he was on deck for Gose. I wanted to use him in a spot where he could tie or win the game."
Scherzer knew that facing the heart of the Tigers order with just a one-run lead would be a daunting task. Afterward, he relished the last frame, especially the final strikeout against Cabrera.
"He's the best hitter in the game," Scherzer said. "To be able to do that against him puts a smile on my face."
Scherzer added: "Strikeouts are sexy. To strike out 20, that's sexy."
For the Tigers, a team that recently snapped a seven-game skid, Wednesday was not about suffering a late-game meltdown or stumbling because of a critical mistake. This wasn’t a game after which second-guessing did much good. The Tigers battled to the very end but were ultimately outclassed by a historic performance by one of the game’s elite pitchers.
"He came out today and really wanted payback," Martinez said. "There's a reason that guy gets $210 million dollars."