Max Scherzer has thrown two no-hitters, come within one strike of a perfect game and met just about every expectation that accompanied the $210 million contract he signed with Washington.
Still, after his latest masterpiece Wednesday night, he said: “There’s something about 20.”
Scherzer struck out 20 batters to match the major league record for a nine-inning game in the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night.
“Tonight was an emotional game, facing a former team and all those guys I have so much respect for,” Scherzer said after pitching against the Tigers for the first time since leaving Detroit. “And so to have a game like this against that caliber of hitter on their side, it really puts a feather in my cap.”
Scherzer (4-2) had a chance to break the mark when James McCann stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning. McCann, who whiffed his previous three times up, grounded to third base for the final out.
“It crossed my mind,” said Scherzer, who did not issue a walk. “I was thinking of all the different scenarios in an 0-2 count that I could do to be able to get that last strikeout.”
The ace right-hander, who pitched two no-hitters for Washington last season and struck out 17 in the second one, joined Roger Clemens (twice), Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson as the only big league pitchers to compile 20 strikeouts in nine innings.
“That’s some serious company,” Scherzer said. “It won’t sink in right now, but it’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Johnson achieved his feat for Arizona during a 2001 game that went 11 innings. Tom Cheney holds the major league record with 21 strikeouts when he pitched all 16 innings for the Washington Senators against Baltimore in 1962.
After striking out the side in the eighth, all on called strikes, Scherzer was up to 18 on 106 pitches, with the Nationals holding a two-run lead.
“I knew there was a lot,” manager Dusty Baker said. “But when they put it on the board, I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ At that point in time, you know, how often do you have a chance to make history like that? We just have to watch him his next start.”
Said Scherzer: “There really wasn’t a conversation, to be honest with you. Everybody knew I wanted the ball, everybody was going to give me the ball.”
The 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner gave up a leadoff homer to J.D. Martinez in the ninth, then blew a 97 mph fastball by slugger Miguel Cabrera for strikeout No. 19.
Victor Martinez singled for his third hit before Scherzer got another All-Star bopper, Justin Upton, swinging at a low slider to tie the record.
That came one pitch after Upton’s foul pop landed just beyond the reach of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and in a camera well.
Scherzer pounded his fist in excitement and went back to work. McCann, however, grounded an 0-1 pitch to third baseman Anthony Rendon, who threw to second for the forceout.
A giddy Scherzer smiled and yelped as he high-fived and hugged other Nationals players on the field. He was doused by his teammates during a postgame television interview.
“Had to go through some tough, tough hitters there with Miggy and J.D. and Victor and all those guys over there,” Scherzer said. “Those guys are unbelievable and they gave me a heck of a time tonight.”
Scherzer threw an astounding 96 of 119 pitches for strikes in a six-hitter for his sixth career complete game. He outpitched pal Jordan Zimmermann (5-2), a former Nationals teammate who left Washington as a free agent for a $110 million deal with Detroit before this season.
“That was one of the more dominant performances I’ve ever come across,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, also an opponent during Wood’s 20-strikeout game and one of the two compiled by Clemens. “It wasn’t quite as dominant as Kerry Wood and it was more dominant than Clemens.”
With the win, Scherzer joined Chicago Cubs right-hander John Lackey as the only active starters to own victories against all 30 major league clubs.
“The fastball really just seemed to work for me tonight,” Scherzer said.
Daniel Murphy had three hits, including a double and a pair of RBI singles off Zimmermann. Danny Espinosa homered off Zimmermann in the seventh as Washington took two of three in the interleague series.
Jose Iglesias homered early for Detroit.
After allowing seven runs on four homers in an 8-6 loss to the Cubs on Friday, Scherzer responded with one of the finest outings of his career.
He seemed to pick up steam late.
After Victor Martinez singled and Upton doubled with one out in the seventh, Scherzer got McCann looking and Anthony Gose swinging to escape.
Scherzer followed that by striking out the side in the eighth, with Ian Kinsler staring at a 96 mph fastball at the knees to end the inning.
Zimmermann allowed three runs over seven innings in his return to Nationals Park. The right-hander received a standing ovation from the crowd of 35,695 when he stepped into the batter’s box after Iglesias’ homer.
Zimmermann briefly backed out and tipped his helmet in appreciation, then became Scherzer’s sixth strikeout victim, going down swinging on a curveball.
Tigers: Cabrera was back in the lineup after his pinch-hit single drove in a run in Detroit’s 5-4 victory Tuesday. Ausmus decided to give the slugger a planned off day on Tuesday instead of Wednesday after Cabrera jammed his right knee sliding into second on Monday.
Nationals: Baker said he doesn’t know if RHP Matt Belisle (calf strain) is ready to resume a throwing program. The reliever went on the disabled list April 27.
Tigers: RHP Mike Pelfrey (0-4, 6.23 ERA) is slated to start the opener of a four-game set against the Orioles at Camden Yards, where he’s 2-0 with a 4.41 ERA in his career.
Nationals: Washington gets an off day before beginning a four-game, three-day set against Miami.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.