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Max Scherzer is making excellence look routine

NEW YORK -- Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker brought up a lot of names before Max Scherzer made Friday's start against the New York Mets.

He made reference to Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling as pitchers who know how to push themselves to the limit, Greg Maddux for understanding that 13-pitch innings are the best way to go deep into games, Fernando Valenzuela for great self-awareness and Baker's Hall of Fame Dodgers teammate Don Sutton both for being a great teammate and understanding what he has to do on a given night to win.

But Scherzer has carved out quite a name for himself -- the kind his teammates, coaches and managers will be bringing up 20, 30 and 40 years from now. He's in a class that puts him in the discussion alongside Clayton Kershaw for best pitcher in the game and could put him in discussion for the Hall of Fame with another couple of strong seasons. He's the rare free-agent signing to be worth (thus far) every penny of the $200-plus million he'll get.

Scherzer made it a personal-best five straight 10-strikeout games with an eight-inning effort that has become rather routine for him -- one run, four hits, 10 strikeouts, a career-high matching three double plays, no sweat -- in the Nationals' 7-2 win over the Mets at Citi Field.

"Those great pitchers, they get the lead and they can chew you up," Mets manager Terry Collins said.

Scherzer acknowledged afterward that the 10-strikeout streak was meaningful to him, which isn't surprising given his previously acknowledged interest in analytics and history.

"You've got to be on your game every single game," Scherzer said. "Your pitches have to be sharp every time out. That speaks to consistency. That I'm on this roll getting guys to strike out speaks to where my stuff is and being in sync with [catcher Matt] Wieters as well."

What's amazing about the 2017 version of Scherzer is this: Since the start of the 2012 season, no one has pitched more innings (including postseason) or thrown more pitches. He never misses a turn or has even come close to a stint on the disabled list.

He turns 33 next month, an age at which pitchers usually are in decline. And he's in the middle of a run that makes it look as if he's going to win a second straight Cy Young. That would give him three in all. Seven of the nine pitchers with three Cy Youngs are in the Hall of Fame (the other two are Roger Clemens and Kershaw).

Scherzer has a 1.13 ERA in his past five starts, with 58 strikeouts and seven walks in 40 innings. Scherzer is winning with a slider and what he noted is a cutter-slider variant that has been ridiculously good all season. Opponents are 7-for-110 with 66 strikeouts against it. The .064 batting average against is the lowest for any starting pitcher on any pitch type this season. Hitters are 0-for-28 against it since he gave up a hit on one to Kelby Tomlinson of the Giants on May 31.

The 66th slider strikeout victim was Yoenis Cespedes, who was moved up in the lineup because Collins, in his own show of respect, thought he needed an MVP-caliber hitter in the No. 2 spot against the Nationals' ace.

Cespedes was hit by a pitch, hit two meek popups and whiffed to end an 11-pitch battle in the eighth inning on Scherzer's 118th (a season high) and last pitch of the night.

"I always love hearing the crowd, whether it's for you or against you," Scherzer said, describing the atmosphere surrounding that at-bat. "That helped provide the adrenaline I needed to power through that at-bat."

Scherzer's adrenaline was flowing. He did his usual walk all the way around to the back of the mound after every strikeout (the "Scherzer stalk") -- his best pitch for the game was his fastball, one that ESPN game analyst David Ross described thusly:

"He has that ball that kind of carries, a closer-type fastball," Ross said. "It feels like it climbs. He would throw it to me belt-high. My swing was long and loopy and I had no shot."

The Mets had no shot either because Scherzer threw 45 of 56 fastballs for strikes (80 percent, about 10 percentage points above his season average). Wieters had a good night too, not just homering, but helping Scherzer get a season-best 50 percent called-strike rate on the heater.

"He was in sync with what I needed to do," Scherzer said. "He's done a great job sequencing guys because he's really a smart catcher."

When asked to evaluate his fastball and slider, Scherzer at first simply said "good." When it comes to explaining how he gets outs, Scherzer won't get into much detail, other than what can be seen -- he acknowledged shaking off Wieters to go to the slider on 3-2 but wouldn't note the "why" behind the choice.

Baker said Scherzer doesn't even allow him to watch his preparation.

"I asked if I could watch his bullpen sessions, he said, 'Maybe,' " Baker said with a laugh. "When that day happens, I'll feel very privileged."

Though not as privileged as he is to have the chance to manage Scherzer.