I'm going to remember the best pitcher in baseball throwing a 96 mph fastball down the middle on an 0-2 count, a no-hitter on the line, the principal confrontation that exists in this great sport: See if the opponent can hit your best heat.
I'm going to remember Max Scherzer celebrating that final fly ball out with catcher Wilson Ramos in front of the pitcher's mound with their little choreographed routine of rapid-fire high-fives like a grade-school game of patty cake, his Washington Nationals teammates mobbing him in joy, and then Scherzer appearing from the circle minus his cap with his arms raised above his head, the hometown fans cheering wildly in exultation -- a baseball god and his devoted followers.
People say no-hitters get old. No-hitters never get old, especially not ones like this.
Because, alas, we'll also remember Jose Tabata's left elbow, leaning oh-so-slightly into Scherzer's 103rd pitch of the game, a 2-2 slider that Tabata willingly took for his free base rather than manning up and actually trying to get a hit. Scherzer was one strike from a perfect game, one start after he had fired a 16-strikeout, one-hit shutout. Scherzer became the 13th pitcher in major league history to lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning, and the first pitcher since Kevin Brown in 1997 to throw a no-hitter in which the only baserunner reached via a hit by pitch. But that one pitch will undoubtedly live on in Scherzer's memory bank for some time, even with the no-hitter completed.
To be fair, give Tabata credit. He fouled off five pitches in the plate appearance, including three with two strikes. Scherzer peered over his black Rawlings glove and shook off Ramos a couple times. Pitch Nos. 101 and 102 had been fastballs, 97 and 96 mph, respectively. Mix it up with the slider. Ramos set up outside. The pitch drifted inside.
Still, we may have witnessed the best back-to-back performances in major league history. Scherzer became the fifth pitcher to allow one hit over consecutive complete games:
Max Scherzer is 5th player in MLB history to allow 1 hit or fewer during back-to-back CG & 1st since 1944. pic.twitter.com/lDfqzTRou4— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 20, 2015
Johnny Vander Meer's two games in June 1938 were both no-hitters, the only man to do so. But it's hard to argue the sum of his efforts was more impressive. In his first no-hitter, he walked three and struck out four. In his second no-hitter, under questionable lighting conditions in the first night game ever played at Ebbets Field, he walked eight and struck out seven. It's difficult to diminish such a feat, but compare the combined lines for both pitchers:
Vander Meer: 18 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 11 BB, 11 SO
Scherzer: 18 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 26 SO
Even in this trumped-up era of strikeouts and mediocre batting averages, I'll take Scherzer's games for pure dominance over Vander Meer's effectively wild no-hitters.
Here's another way to look at it: Scherzer had back-to-back Game Scores of 100 and 97. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, since 1914 only one starter had registered consecutive Game Scores of at least 95 or higher in the same season: R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets in 2012, when the knuckleballer threw back-to-back one-hitters, with two walks and 25 strikeouts (and an unearned run in one of the games). His Game Scores were 95 and 96. Nolan Ryan, author of seven no-hitters, came closest to matching Vander Meer when he pitched a no-hitter on July 15, 1973, a 17-strikeout game that scored 100. In his next start, he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning (although he'd allowed an unearned run in the first). Ryan would pitch into the 11th inning that day, eventually losing the game and finishing with a Game Score of 87.
Scherzer is now 8-5 with a 1.76 ERA, and while that win-loss record doesn't scream out "best pitcher in baseball," we've learned that win-loss records can be misleading. With a little luck, Scherzer could easily be 14-0. He lost one game when two errors led to three unearned runs; he lost games when he allowed one run in seven innings and two runs in seven; he picked up a no-decision when he allowed one run in six innings. Two of his losses were more legit, when he allowed four runs in each of his two starts before that game against the Brewers.
It's reasonable to conclude Scherzer has now earned the label of best starter in the game. He leads the majors in ERA at 1.76, and has allowed just 68 hits in 102.1 innings for a ridiculous .181 batting average allowed. He leads the majors in innings and strikeouts with 123 -- one more than Clayton Kershaw. He's walked just 14 batters to go with all those K's. While Kershaw rightfully still has a claim as the best starter based on his long reign of excellence, consider that Scherzer has allowed one run or zero runs in nine of his 14 starts this season, while Kershaw has done that in just three of his 14 starts. Right now, the advantage belongs to Scherzer.
That Scherzer would crush teams after moving over from the American League and its deeper lineups to the National League isn't a surprise. This is why the Nationals gave him that seven-year, $210 million contract. Scherzer has delivered. The rest of the Nationals -- aside from Bryce Harper, who hit his 23rd home run Saturday -- have failed to live up to expectations, however, and the team is just 36-33, tied with the Mets for first place in the NL East, pending the Mets' outcome Saturday.
The super rotation hasn't developed as planned, with Stephen Strasburg currently on the disabled list with a 6.55 ERA, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister both owning ERAs over 4.75, and Jordan Zimmermann getting hit harder than last season. While the Nationals have more arms on the way -- Joe Ross has looked good in three starts and top prospect Lucas Giolito could arrive in 2016 -- you do wonder about their window, even with Scherzer signed through 2021. Zimmermann and Fister are free agents, and Strasburg's health is an issue. Harper is a stud, but Anthony Rendon has been injury-prone in his career. Ryan Zimmerman, hitting .209/.265/.346, is no longer a star, Jayson Werth is aging and fragile, and Ian Desmond and Denard Span are free agents.
That cloudy future puts more pressure on the 2015 team to succeed. Scherzer has done his part. So has Harper. Now the rest of the team needs to find more of its own moments.