WASHINGTON -- As Max Scherzer's strikeout tally rose on Wednesday and the excitement at Nationals Park grew along with it, Nationals players found themselves reduced to awed spectators. By the eighth inning, when Scherzer reached 18 K's, and then in the ninth, with the 19th and the MLB-record-tying 20th, they were as slack-jawed as everyone else.
"By then it's just fun to sit there and watch," fellow starting pitcher Joe Ross said after Scherzer led the Nats to a 3-2 win over the Tigers. "By then we're not even talking on the bench, we're just watching pitch by pitch, each at-bat."
"The first inning, I ran in and I said to [Jayson Werth], 'That's Max,'" Bryce Harper said. "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."
Because Scherzer's strikeouts came so steadily throughout the evening, it took until the late innings for the crowd, and the players, to realize that history was within reach.
Scherzer found out his K-count after the eighth inning, when he was at 18; catcher Wilson Ramos realized at 17, and second baseman Daniel Murphy said it hit him at the end of the eighth. By then the crowd was cheering not just for every strikeout but for every strike.
When James McCann grounded out to third base for a game-ending fielder's choice, not everyone in the Nationals' dugout was hoping Anthony Rendon would make the play for the final out.
"We were just joking, he gets to one strike on the last guy and then he gets a ground ball, maybe he just boots it on purpose or takes his time, throws and the guy's safe," Ross said, laughing.
All evening, Scherzer relied on his fastball, which remained in the high 90s through the final pitch. The 98-mph heater he used to whiff Miguel Cabrera for his 19th strikeout was his hardest pitch of the entire season, according to Statcast™.
Murphy, who went 3-for-18 with four strikeouts against Scherzer while playing for the Mets, realized Scherzer had his 'A' game when he noticed talented Tigers hitters repeatedly swinging through fastballs, even in fastball counts.
"He's got that good put-away fastball late in the count, that kind of riding fastball on lefties," Murphy said. "When I see them swinging through that, I've experienced that personally. That's unpleasant."
Although performances such as Scherzer's are rare -- only Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Kerry Wood had previously fanned 20 batters in a nine-inning outing -- Ross was barely surprised. In Scherzer's brief year-and-change tenure with the Nationals, he has already thrown two no-hitters and had three games of at least 16 strikeouts.
"It's almost like you expect him to do something ridiculous every game," Ross said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he had another 20-strikeout game later this season."
Alex Putterman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.