Sixteen Phillies up, sixteen down. With each batter retired, the tension grew, all out of proportion to a just middle-of-the-season contest between teams at opposite ends of the National League East spectrum, even more than normal when a pitcher has a no-hitter going in the sixth inning.
Everybody knew the Nationals right-hander was really squaring off against history on Friday night in a 5-2 win at Citizens Bank Park.
And history was the heavy favorite. Always is. After all, there's a reason only one pitcher has ever thrown back to back-to-back no-hitters ... and that it has been 77 years since Johnny Vander Meer did it for the Reds against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
So when shortstop Freddy Galvis hooked a 1-1 curve into the right-field corner with one out in the sixth, Scherzer got right back onto the mound and went about his business and retired the next two hitters to end the inning. Because that's what he does. That single-minded focus is one reason he's so good.
Scherzer's first thought: "That I made a mistake," he said. "Eventually, I was going to run out of luck out there. It's something that you just have to move on. Focus on the next hitter and how you're going to get out of the inning, and guys you've got to face. Was it a letdown? Yes. But at the same time, your focus is to win the ballgame. That's the first and foremost thing you have to worry about. So, for me, it was bearing down and trying to figure out a way to get out of that inning with no runs."
Heck, it wasn't even the biggest letdown Scherzer has had in the last week. Six days earlier, against the Pirates, he was working on a perfect game with two out in the ninth before nicking the elbow pad of Jose Tabata, setting the stage for Friday's drama.
It wasn't fair or realistic to expect Scherzer to throw another no-hitter. And yet ...
Scherzer is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He's been on a historically good roll. Two starts ago, he pitched a one-hitter. He was not only facing a team that ranks at or near the bottom of baseball in most offensive categories, it was a team that was rocked earlier in the day by the abrupt and unexpected resignation of manager Ryne Sandberg.
So, yeah, it came as a little bit of a jolt when Galvis broke it up. Especially considering how dominant Scherzer had been to that point.
Scherzer's first pitch in the bottom of the first was a called strike to center fielder Odubel Herrera. The only catch-your-breath moment before Galvis broke it up in the sixth came moments later when, with two out, rookie third baseman Maikel Franco ripped a line drive toward left field ... where it was intercepted by third baseman Danny Espinosa.
Scherzer admitted that, by the time the sixth inning rolled around, he couldn't entirely ignore what was going on.
"It was a little early to be thinking about it. But once you get the first time through the order, you've got something going. Then you start piecing it together," he said. "I had something working, but it's just so hard. It takes luck. You've got to be on point and when you make mistakes, they've got to miss it. I made some mistakes early, but they were hit right at somebody. Then, I hung a curveball and Galvis was able to hit it. It's just one of those things."
Nationals manager Matt Williams insisted he wasn't thinking that his starting pitcher might be on the doorstep of accomplishing something extraordinary.
"We don't think in those terms," he said. "One out at a time. But he was really good."
But Williams' eyes twinkled just a little when when he said it.
Scherzer had faced 54 batters since he last gave up a hit. No matter how easy it might look from the outside, Scherzer laughed out loud when asked if retiring hitters with the regularity of a metronome had come to feel automatic.
"Oh, goodness, no," he said. "This a divisional opponent. They've seen you and the margin for error shrinks even more. You've got to come up with new ways to get these guys out. For me, executing all your pitches now becomes a premium."
That's why his expression never changed when Galvis jumped on the curve and the ball dropped safely and Scherzer's streak ended. Nobody should have been surprised, but again, that's just how well he's been pitching lately.
Scherzer ended up allowing two runs on five hits against the Phillies.
Scherzer is a baseball fan with an appreciation of the game's history. And few can fully appreciate more than him how impressive Vander Meer's feat was.
"Unbelievable," he said. "It just seems so improbable to be able to do that. You're really speechless to be mentioned with that."
History won again. But not before Scherzer gave it a real run for its money.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.