Coming off 1-hit start and no-hitter, Nats righty set to face Phillies
By Paul Hagen
WASHINGTON -- As the story goes, the old copy editor, a been-there-seen-that sort, was sitting at his desk one afternoon when the eager young copy boy rushed over clutching a piece of paper he'd just ripped from the teletype machine.
"Don Larsen just pitched a perfect game in the World Series!" he said.
"No big deal," the crusty veteran responded, barely looking up. "Let me know if he does it again."
Isn't that just the way? There have been 172 occasions when a pitcher has thrown a regular-season no-hitter since Johnny Vander Meer did it for the second straight time on June 15, 1938, against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
And each time, almost before the guy has finished accepting congratulations from his teammates, the speculation begins. Can he do it again?
Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer becomes the latest to take the Vander Meer Challenge when he starts against the Phillies on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park. This time, though, the buzz seems to be just a little louder, the anticipation just a bit hotter, than is customary under these circumstances. And there are compelling reasons why this start is unique, why it projects as a must-watch spectacle.
For one thing, this isn't just Scherzer's next time out after pitching a no-hitter. It's his next appearance after carrying a perfect game into the ninth before clipping Pirates pinch-hitter Jose Tabata on the elbow guard with a pitch with two outs. That left a vague impression that he had somehow settled for a no-hitter, strange as that sounds.
It also wasn't like the no-no was an unexplainable blip on Scherzer's personal radar screen. Six days earlier, against the Brewers at Miller Park, he took a perfect game into the seventh. A leadoff single by Carlos Gomez broke it up, but a walk to Scooter Gennett in the eighth was the only other baserunner the Crew managed.
Baseball is a streaky game. Scherzer is an elite pitcher, anyway, and when he gets this hot -- 18 shutout innings, one hit, one walk, one hit batter, 26 strikeouts in his last two starts -- it's not a stretch to imagine him staying at the top of his game for a while. Multiple stories in recent days have documented that his consecutive games rank among the most dominant in history.
He'll be facing a Phillies club that ranks last in the big leagues in runs (244) and next-to-last in homers (46) and OPS (.650) even after scoring a total of 31 runs in games started by Michael Wacha, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia this week.
Scherzer is well aware that all the success he's had in his last two starts, plus $14.50, is worth one general-admission adult ticket to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
"You've got to re-focus and not get complacent," he said. "You can't think success just happens, you can just walk out on the mound and have success. No. Success comes from hard work, from doing everything in the weight room to going out and running, doing everything you got to to prepare in the bullpen, making sure your pitches are sharp.
"And you've got to be focused to do that. So even though I've had two really good starts, my focus is on what I can do in the third. Making sure all my stuff is ready to go to face the Phillies, because I know how challenging it will be."
Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty has been around baseball for four decades, including nine seasons pitching for the Athletics. He said that what Scherzer has done his last two times out has been "pretty special" but swears there isn't any discernable difference between those games and the dozen that preceded it this season except for the results.
"The stuff is always there. It's just that he's made the pitches when he had to. I see a guy who has the ability right now, any time he goes out there, to do what he did," McCatty said. "Obviously a no-hitter or a one-hitter or a perfect game doesn't happen every time. But he competes at such a high level, his stuff is so good.
"It's just a matter of baseball. It's baseball. Sometimes you make all the pitches in the world, and nobody hits them. And sometimes you make all the pitches in the world and they fall in. That's the nature of the game. But the ability to do what he's done is there just about every time."
Don't get too high, don't get too low. Play them one game at a time. These are old baseball adages, and Scherzer tries to maintain his perspective while honoring his accomplishments.
"The fact that I've had two really good [games in a row] doesn't mean anything from what it stands for over the course of the season," he said. "I realize what it is to have success at this level and how hard it is to have success at this level. My mission now is to finish out the rest of the year as well as I can, and it starts on Friday facing the Phillies, and that's going to be a tough challenge.
"Of course, you're proud of it. It's a huge accomplishment to be able to do that. At the same time, you realize that as good as I've been over the last two games, my season's not going to be defined by this. Your season is defined by 32 starts and what you do within those 32 starts."
Fair enough. On a shelf in his locker are two baseballs encased in clear plastic cubes. "No-Hitter" is written on one, "1 Hit Shutout" on the other. They are tangible evidence of what he's done. The space on either side is a tantalizing reminder that he might still do more.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.