Scherzer rises above chaos, shows he's still one of the best

WASHINGTON -- Given all the hubbub in D.C. the last couple of days, it would've been easy to forget about Max Scherzer. Instead, he reminded us Wednesday that he's one of the premier pitchers in the game.

Facing the Detroit Tigers, his former team and the only one he'd never beaten, Scherzer fanned 20 batters, tying the major league record for most strikeouts in a nine-inning game.

The prolific performance came on the heels on one of Scherzer's worst outings as a big leaguer, when he gave up four homers and seven earned runs to the Chicago Cubs. It also comes amid a whirlwind of white noise in Washington.

On Monday, reigning MVP Bryce Harper was ejected from the series opener against Detroit for arguing with plate umpire Brian Knight, then shouted profanity at Knight while celebrating a walk-off homer by teammate Clint Robinson. The following day, the Nationals announced they'd agreed to a seven-year, $175 million contract extension with pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Then on Wednesday, shortly before the series finale, MLB announced that Harper had been suspended for his actions Monday.

Two hours later, Scherzer took the mound and somehow made everyone forget all of that. Every last bit of it. Because that's what whiffs can do.

"To be able to punch out 20," Scherzer said after the 3-2 victory, "it's sexy."

It's also historic.

The 31-year-old right-hander became only the fourth pitcher in MLB history to score a score of K's in nine innings, joining Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson, all of whom fanned exactly 20 hitters as well. He's the first pitcher to accomplish the feat since Johnson, a Hall of Famer, did it in 2001.

"That's some serious company," said Scherzer, who also joined John Lackey as the only active pitchers to have defeated all 30 MLB teams. Wearing a gray and red Nats T-shirt, Washington's ace held court after the game at the same podium where, one day earlier, Strasburg talked about his $175 million deal. "It won't sink in right now, but it's an amazing accomplishment."

How amazing?

Since Johnson last pulled it off, almost 15 years ago to the day (May 8, 2001), there have been 46 no-hitters. Two of those belong to Scherzer, who tossed a pair of no-hitters last season, his first with Washington after signing a seven-year, $210 million deal in January 2015. Despite that, Scherzer seemed almost in a state of shock following his performance Wednesday.

"Because 20 is just an unbelievable number," said Scherzer, whose previous career high was the 17 whiffs he recorded in his no-hitter against the New York Mets last October. "There's something about 20 in this game. Twenty strikeouts, 20 wins -- those are huge numbers. To be able to go out there tonight and be able to accomplish one of those, that's a huge feat."

It was even huger given who it came against.

"Tonight was an emotional game," said Scherzer, who spent five seasons in Detroit, including 2013, when he won the American League Cy Young Award. "Facing a former team and all those guys I have so much respect for and how they play the game and how they compete. I really think the world [of] how they go out there and play the game, and so to have a game like this against that caliber of hitters on their side, that really puts a feather in my cap."

It also put a charge into the crowd of 35,000-plus -- the second largest in D.C. since Opening Day -- that spent the majority of the last three innings on its feet, hanging on Scherzer's every offering.

In the seventh, with Washington leading 2-1 and one out and runners on second and third following consecutive hits, and with Rush's "Tom Sawyer" blaring over the PA system in between pitches, Nats Park roared when Scherzer punched out James McCann and Anthony Gose to end the threat and reach 15 K's.

In the eighth, when Scherzer struck out the side for the third time in the game to reach 18 K's, the District's decibel level went up another notch.

In the ninth, with Scherzer already at 19 K's after fanning Miguel Cabrera, when first baseman Ryan Zimmerman ran out of room in foul ground and narrowly missed catching a Justin Upton popup that landed in the seats to run the count to 0-2, the crowd actually seemed to rejoice, knowing that 20 was still in play. One pitch later, when Upton waved at an 85-mph slider, the capital quaked.

By the time it was all said and done, there were so many K's on the stadium LED display, it looked as if the scoreboard operator had fallen asleep with his forehead on the "K" key.

Afterward, Scherzer was so euphoric that he was able to joke about serving up another pair of gopher balls, raising his season total to 11, the most in the National League.

"I think this will be the only time I'll ever talk about giving up two home runs and I'll have this big a smile on my face," he said.

Because that's what whiffs can do. Especially when you rack up 20 of them.