Washington — Miguel Cabrera sat in front of his locker like a prize fighter who’d taken a standing-eight count. Dazed and somewhat in disbelief at what just happened.
“He was just different,” Cabrera said. “He got 20 strikeouts. That's special. How many times they do that in the big leagues? Five? How many years they been playing this game? It was just special.
“I've never seen him throw the ball like that."
Max Scherzer, Cabrera’s teammate for five seasons in Detroit, had a game for the ages Wednesday night. He became the third pitcher in major league history to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game and he outdueled his former teammate in Washington, Jordan Zimmermann, beating the Tigers, 3-2.
“It's like a horror film,” said J.D. Martinez, whose home run leading off the ninth gave the Tigers a brief flicker of life. “He's got stuff. He's got pitches that will put you away. He's got three pitches that can put you away, that fastball, the slider and the change-up. I think he put me away with every one of them.
“Like I said, he's one of the best pitchers in the game and today he went out there and showed that.”
Scherzer joins Kerry Wood (1998) and Roger Clemens (1986, 1996) and Randy Johnson (2001) in the 20-strikeout club. Tom Cheney (1962) accomplished the feat in an extra-inning game. Johnson's game also went extra innings, but he was lifted after nine innings.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus faced both Wood and Clemens (1996) in their 20-strikeout games.
“Max was not quite as dominant as Kerry Wood, but he was more dominant than Clemens,” Ausmus said. “That was as good as I’ve seen him and I had him for a year in Detroit. He was dominant right out of the gate.”
The 20 strikeouts is a Nationals Park record, a Nationals club record and Washington franchise (Expos-Nats) record. After the sixth inning, he had thrown just 15 balls and had 13 strikeouts.
He became just the fourth pitcher to throw more than 80 percent strikes in a 100-plus-pitch outing. He threw 96 strikes in 119 pitches (34 swinging). He joins Roy Halladay, David Wells and Curt Schilling in that club.
“We won and there’s 20 punch-outs,” Scherzer said. “That’s an unbelievable feat. The win was the most important thing tonight, especially to be able to get a complete game. That’s an accomplishment. The strikeouts are sexy. That just makes it special. The 20 really puts a stamp on it.”
He was coming off a start where he’d given up four home runs in five innings to the Cubs. He gave up home runs to J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias in this game. But, with his team up 3-2 in the top of the ninth, he was able to strike out Cabrera for the third time in the game.
Then, after allowing the third single of the game by Victor Martinez, he struck out Justin Upton to tie the record and finished the game by getting James McCann to ground out.
“Once J.D. hit that home run in the ninth, OK, this is a one-run ballgame and now I’ve got to go through the heart of the order,” Scherzer said. “I’ve got to go through facing Miggy, Victor and J-Up. Those are tremendous hitters and this is for real. I’ve got to give everything I’ve got to even get the win.
“I know the record is within reach, but I was thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to really dig down deep and be able to get through these guys because I’ve seen them for so long and how good they are.’ I really needed to come up with some big-time pitches. Fortunately enough my fastball was still strong all way through.”
He threw 98 mph in the first inning. And he was able to reach back and get 98 in the ninth.
“He came out today and really wanted payback,” J.D. Martinez said. “He was pumping it even from the first inning, 96, 97 and he finished out the game 98. There's a reason that guy gets $210 million dollars. He's a very good pitcher, one of the best pitchers in the game.
“He had his change-up, his slider, he blends everything so well, and his fastball is so electric that you kind of have to cheat on it. He's one of those guys where, even when he misses, his stuff is still that good where he can get it by you.”
With the win, Scherzer joins John Lackey as the only active pitcher to record a win against all 30 Major League teams.
It was the first time two pitchers who’d won at least 70 games with the opposing team faced each other in a big-league game. Zimmermann got a warm standing ovation in his first at-bat and he put forth an admirable battle for seven innings.
“I wish we were on the other end of it, but it was fun,” said Zimmermann, who went seven innings. “Max had his A-game today. Twenty strikeouts. I was just trying to put up zeros and keep the game close. Everybody knew he was on.
“Really, the home run to Espinosa cost us the game. It's be 2-2 and we'd still be playing right now. I made one mistake to him and it cost us."
Danny Espinosa hit a one-out home run in the seventh to provide the winning margin.
“Zimm was really good,” Ausmus said. “It was a pitcher's duel and Max — that was one of the most dominant performances I've ever come across.”
In the second inning, Scherzer struck out Upton, McCann and Anthony Gose on nine pitches. You knew then it was going to be a vintage Scherzer outing.
Iglesias led off with his first home run of the season, a rail-scraper that just cleared the 336 marker in left. But he retired the next 13 hitters until the sixth when a single by Victor Martinez and a double by Upton put the tying run on third with one out.
Scherzer bowed his neck and fanned McCann on three pitches and Gose on five.
“I think that was the difference in the game,” J.D. Martinez said. “We were on second and third with one out and Max turned around and just strikes out two in a row. That's what he can do. We all saw it. So, it's nothing new.”
Scherzer might have angered the fans, and he certainly disappointed owner Mike Ilitch, by turning up his nose at the Tigers’ $144 million offer after the 2014 season. But between the players, there is no animosity.
It was like a battle between brothers Wednesday night.
“I almost needed the Tigers to come in to almost get me amped up, to get going,” Scherzer said. “To be going on full cylinders and put something extra on the line. With those guys the past couple days, they were having their fun and we were talking back and forth.
“I know Victor, he’s happy, he went 3-for-4 tonight. I know we’ve been talking a little trash. But tonight was a special night because the strikeouts are sexy. To be able to punch out 20, it’s sexy.”