WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer got the better of Jordan Zimmermann, and of every other Tiger, on Wednesday night. In a matchup of two pitchers facing their former teams, Scherzer outdueled Zimmermann and put up a record-setting night to guide the Nationals to a 3-2 victory over the Tigers. Scherzer dominated the Tigers with 20 strikeouts, tying a Major League record for a nine-inning start in a complete-game victory.
"Tonight, at the end of the night, was a special night," Scherzer said. "Because, I mean, the strikeouts are sexy. And to be able to punch out 20 -- it's sexy."
Scherzer had been looking forward to facing his former team for the first time ever since he figured out that the schedule would allow it. And he was electric, scattering six hits and walking none. The only damage he allowed came on a pair of solo home runs, first by Jose Iglesias in the third inning, then by J.D. Martinez in the ninth. He becomes just the fourth pitcher in MLB history with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning effort.
"Twenty is just an unbelievable number," Scherzer said. "There's something about 20 in the 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."
Zimmermann received a standing ovation from the crowd at Nationals Park in his return to the place where he spent the first seven years of his career. He turned in a solid performance of his own, surrendering three runs on seven hits in seven innings, but he was tagged by a pair of run-scoring hits from Daniel Murphy and a solo home run by Danny Espinosa.
"It was fun," Zimmermann said. "I wish we were on the other end of it, but it was fun. Max had his 'A' game today. It was fun just trying to put up zeros and keep the game close. Everybody knew he was on tonight. Really, the homer from Espinosa cost us the game. We could be 2-2 and still playing right now. I made one mistake to him, and it cost us."
Scherzer ran into some trouble in the ninth, allowing Martinez's home run as well as a single to Victor Martinez, but he got strikeout No. 19 against Miguel Cabrera and No. 20 against Justin Upton. He had a shot at 21, but James McCann grounded into a force play to end the game.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Superb Scherzer: Scherzer entered the game with the highest ERA of any Nationals starter, befuddled as to why he had been tagged for so many home runs. But as he is capable of doing, he put it all together for one of the most dominant performances of this season. He becomes just the fourth pitcher in MLB history with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning effort.
"I needed to make some changes from my last start," he said. "I really don't feel like I've been pitching that well, especially how I pitched in Chicago. I almost needed the Tigers to come and almost get me amped up to get going. To be going on full cylinders and put something extra on the line."
Scherzer has now beaten all 30 teams in the Majors, joining Cubs right-hander John Lackey as the only active pitchers to do so.
Iggy thump: Scherzer struck out seven of eight batters from the second inning into the fourth, but the one ball put in play was costly. Iglesias, a teammate of Scherzer's for the final few months of 2013, jumped on a first-pitch fastball and sent it over the fence in the left-field corner for his first home run of the season, tying the score at 1.
Lineup shuffle pays off: Nationals manager Dusty Baker decided to flip Ryan Zimmerman, who had been hitting fourth, with Murphy, who had been fifth, before the game, citing Murphy's career numbers -- .328 with four homers -- against Zimmermann. But it also provided more protection behind Bryce Harper, a hot hitter in Murphy, who should make teams think twice about walking the reigning National League MVP.
Murphy delivered in his new role with three hits and pair of RBIs. He now has recorded four consecutive multihit games, increasing his average to .409.
One big chance: Though J.D. Martinez homered on the first pitch of the ninth inning to bring the Tigers within a run, Detroit's best scoring chance came in the seventh, when Justin Upton's double off the center-field wall put runners on second and third with one out. Scherzer then came up with some of his biggest pitches of the night, striking out McCann and Anthony Gose to end the threat.
"I think that was the difference in the game," J.D. Martinez said. "We had guys on second and third with one out, and Max turns around and strikes out two in a row. That's what he can do. We witnessed it here."
"That's the guy that goes out there and competes and goes about it, and he's an animal out there. He gets on the mound and goes. Those are the nights it's fun to watch him pitch. Every time he goes out there, you never know what's going to happen. That's why he's so special, and that's why I think he's one of the best in baseball." -- Harper
"That's the best performance I've seen in person." -- Baker
WHAT'S NEXT Tigers: The Detroiters hop over to Baltimore for a four-game series against the Orioles beginning Thursday night. Mike Pelfrey tries to break his struggles when he takes the mound opposite Ubaldo Jimenez in the series opener at 7:05 p.m. ET.
Nationals: The team will have a day off on Thursday before hosting the Marlins for a weekend series beginning Friday at 7:05 p.m. ET. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez will take the mound in the opener looking to bounce back from his worst outing of the season, when he allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Cubs. Right-hander Tom Koehler will start for Miami.