Nats ace shines after working through setbacks on journey to stardom
By Megan Zahneis
Max Scherzer is arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Or maybe there isn't much of an argument, considering Scherzer just turned in two of the best pitching performances in Nationals history in his past two starts.
Scherzer's last outing was one hit batter shy of perfect. What more could the Nats ask for?
You could say the dependable Scherzer is earning every penny of the seven-year, $210 million contract he inked with Washington as the top free agent this past offseason.
Scherzer ranks in the top 10 in the Majors in ERA (1.93), innings pitched (93 1/3), strikeouts (113), opposing batting average (.195) and WHIP (0.88).
In other words, it's pretty good to be Scherzer at the moment. That's the culmination of a long journey, one that began when the 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner was an 8-year-old kid picking up a ball and glove in Chesterfield, Mo.
Looking back, Scherzer couldn't have fathomed how that journey would play out.
"You had the dream," Scherzer said. "When I was 18, graduating high school, I was going to the University of Missouri. You have the dream that you can get there and there's a path for you to do that. That's why you went to school, because you realize that, being a professional athlete, there's a good chance you're not going to make it. You need an education, that's why for me, it was such an important decision to go to college and further my education to provide me a safety net in case this didn't work out. From there, it's putting in the hard work and just always find a way to get better. Push yourself every single day to continue to work at yourself. And I feel like that's the reason why I made it."
No, Scherzer isn't that 8-year-old kid anymore. He has changed quite a bit since he was first drafted by the Cardinals out of high school in the 43rd round of the 2003 Draft. Scherzer has changed since he became Mizzou's first first-round Draft pick in 2006 before he signed with the D-backs.
"My life has changed; it's such chaos now," Scherzer said. "Being in the situation I'm in now, it's surreal. I love everybody around me. I've got great friends, I've got a great wife, I've got a couple dogs now. Turning 30, life has definitely changed -- it's changed for the better. I'm really happy with where I'm at in life.
"I'm trying to put myself back in high school where I was at in the game, and it's just funny going back, because I'm a so much more polished baseball player than I ever was when I was 18 years old. But the passion was still the same. That's the No. 1 thing that's never changed is the love for the game and that I can do this year-round and not get sick of baseball. I enjoy working at this every single day."
There were times, of course, when he enjoyed it less. Take, for example, his freshman year at Mizzou, during which he logged only 20 innings.
"It was extremely, extremely frustrating. It's probably the only time that I ever thought, 'How am I gonna make it? If I can't pitch on this team now, how am I ever going to make it to the big leagues?'" Scherzer said. "I just remember, in that moment, trying to find a way to get to the field because I know what I'm capable of. I know when I take the mound that I can be better than the other team; I just need this opportunity to show it. Obviously, I didn't do quite as well when I had my opportunities my freshman year, but it's that desire to always compete against the other team even when you're getting beat. Even when you get popped in the face -- because we've all been popped in the face -- but when you get hit, you continue to march forward.
"It does not knock you down, no matter what. You'll take that and keep learning from it and keep going forward. That's the positive mentality: Even when things aren't going your way, you still find a way to believe in yourself."
That's a lesson the righty learned in 2010 and '11, both banner years for him in drastically different regards.
"In 2010, I got traded to Detroit. I struggled at first, I got sent down and came back up. When I came back up, I pitched lights-out for the rest of the year," Scherzer said. "I really felt like I had done some really good things for the rest of 2010 and I remember going into the offseason -- I still trained hard and everything -- but I just thought because I had pitched so well in 2010 and fixed everything I needed to fix, I thought I'd go into 2011 and just be able to continue what I had done in 2010. I didn't work to get better, I just thought I'd be able to roll out of bed and continue that success.
"And 2011 was probably my worst year as a pro. They hit me and they hit me hard. I don't want to say I was complacent because I still worked hard, but I didn't have this desire to get better. I thought I was going to be able to carry over what I'd done in 2010. When I had a bad year in 2011, something that I felt like I was capable of pitching better than that, that kind of woke me up, saying, 'Look, you're going to have to get better. Even though you had a great year in 2010, this league has figured you out.'"
That, as it turned out, was a mental turning point.
"I started to critique myself in so many different ways, [thinking] of what's it going to take to become the pitcher I knew I was capable of," Scherzer said. "That's where I feel like in 2012, I came out and I really had done the things I had critiqued myself on. I really felt like I had sharpened my slider and, within that year, after I got more consistent with that pitch, I was able to add a curveball.
"And once I was able to add a curveball, that's when I was able to really become the pitcher I am today because it really gave me another pitch for left-handed hitters, so it allowed me to change speeds even more. It opened a whole new door and a whole new thing I could do against hitters. I knew that pitch was going to take time, but it was that type of sequence in 2010, 2011 and 2012 that changed my mindset. In professional sports, you never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse, so you'd better choose to get better every single day."
Scherzer has gotten better, and given his Major League track record, it's probably a bit easier for him to believe that now than it was in 2011. Yet he doesn't pay too much attention to the numbers that have surprised many around baseball this spring.
"It kind of makes you feel good, but I just know how hard it is to continue to keep going forward throughout the rest of the year," Scherzer said. "I know these guys are going to figure me out. These guys are really good and they're trying to figure out everything I'm doing to try to get me.
"You can't come off of that mentality of, 'I've got to keep going.' You can't turn around and look back. You have the blinders on and just keep marching forward. You look forward to your next opportunity and your next opponent and doing whatever it takes to beat them. That's why I love baseball and love that we play 162 games. It's that marathon mentality that it does not matter how good you've done, it only matters what you do next because eventually someone's going to get you. When that happens, how do you keep moving forward? Baseball's such a mental grind in that aspect, but that's the aspect I love."
That's not to say that Scherzer lacks confidence in his abilities.
"My view on confidence is that confidence is a choice," Scherzer said. "You don't let results dictate your confidence. You choose how confident you are about yourself and I've always chosen to be -- it's not cockiness -- but I choose that I'm going to be as confident as possible.
"Every hitter I face, I'm going to sit here and say, 'I believe I'm better than you in this moment.' Even though you might not be, you're going to have the confidence that you are."
And let's be honest, more often than not, Scherzer is better than the player standing 60 feet, 6 inches away from him in the batter's box.
Megan Zahneis is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.