The clock ticked towards 1.45 AM, British Summer Time. I lay in bed, flicking through different baseball games via the MLB TV app on my television. That age old dilemma approached. All baseball fans this side of the pond know it well. At what point do I actually admit defeat and retire for the night?
In this daily struggle, we lie to ourselves repeatedly. I’ll turn it off after this half-inning, we think. Oh, just one more batter won’t hurt, we conclude. Let’s just check one more game before turning out the light, we propose. Even when sunrise edges near and work beckons in a matter of hours, our addiction to this beguiling game wins out, and we keep watching, often hating ourselves for caving in again.
Last night, the final game I stumbled across, well after midnight, was the Washington Nationals battling the Detroit Tigers. It was the sixth inning, and Max Scherzer was on the mound. I could barely keep my eyes open. My mind screamed for sleep. But still, I watched. Why? I don’t really know. Nevertheless, what I saw was special. Scherzer was hammering the mitt of catcher Wilson Ramos and making a pretty formidable Tigers lineup look distinctly over-matched. His fastball sizzled into the strike zone with a heavy thud. Totally overpowered, Ian Kinsler and JD Martinez went down swinging to end the frame. I felt that was a natural break-off point to finally catch some sleep.
Yet, as Scherzer stomped back to the dugout, the announcers informed their audience that the ace now had thirteen strikeouts through six innings of work. Even in a sleepy state, that set off alarm bells in my head. I knew from years of playing baseball video games that anything more than two strikeouts per inning put a guy on track for greatness in any specific game. Scherzer had half a chance, I figured, of reaching the immortal twenty strikeout plateau. Against all logic, I decided to keep watching until his chance at such a mark ended.
You see, the twenty strikeout, nine-inning game has always been a source of fascination for me. I became an avid baseball fan in 2004, and therefore missed out on witnessing live the masterpieces of Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Kerry Wood. That trio shared the record of twenty, with Clemens achieving it twice, ten years apart. Wood was the last to do it, with the Cubs in 2001. I always yearned to see it happen, to watch it live. More than any no-hitter or perfect game, it held a huge significance for me. Anytime somebody got close, I tried my hardest to locate a stream of the game. Scherzer had a chance, so I continued watching.
The pitcher controls the outcome of a baseball game more than any other player, but even that autonomy has limits. For instance, once a ball leaves the hand, the hurler has minimal control over what actually happens. To a large degree, his success is predicated on the ability of rival hitters to make contact and defenders to make plays. But strikeouts somehow feel a little different. Yes, they’re still reliant on the batter not putting the ball in play, but aside from a catcher dropping strike three, there is very little external influence. Good pitching beats good hitting, or so the old maxim goes. Accordingly, the strikeout is the most powerful indicator of total domination from a pitcher. It’s a symbol of raw ability, and recording twenty of twenty-seven outs via that method in any one game is an outward tapestry of innate genius.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch that genius in action last night. Anthony Rendon singled leading off the bottom of the sixth, and Bryce Harper put on a lengthy at-bat. I simply fell into a deep sleep before Scherzer returned to the hill for his seventh inning of work. Before surrendering to tiredness, I remember thinking that he’d likely reach the high teens in terms of strikeouts before succumbing to a high pitch count, that scourge of modern day attempts at the hallowed twenty benchmark. That’s happened a lot in recent years, with guys like Noah Syndergaard, Corey Kluber and Michael Pineda showing potential to approach the record before running out of bullets.
Ultimately, I didn’t learn about Scherzer’s phenomenal ending until early this morning. Whereas some people crave nicotine or caffeine as soon as their eyes open, I yearn for baseball box scores. After fondling with the alarm clock, I instinctively reached for my phone and fired up the MLB At Bat app, that wondrous gift to the international baseball fan. I scrolled down the scores, momentarily forgetting all about Scherzer’s shot at greatness. Only after flicking to the news feed did I learn that, unbelievably, he managed to strike out twenty.
I was stunned. After years of waiting for this to happen, it’s difficult to articulate how excited I was. Naturally, I was annoyed at myself for falling asleep as baseball history was made, but those feelings were submerged by admiration for Scherzer’s ability and appreciation for his work. He finished his night off with two strikeouts in the seventh, three looking in the eighth, and two swinging in the ninth. He even had one shot at establishing a new record, but James McCann grounded into a forceout, ending the remarkable game.
The box score itself is a thing of beauty. Five different Tigers struck out three times, including Miguel Cabrera, the four-time batting champion and one-time Triple Crown winner blessed with preternatural ability in the batter’s box. Even Miggy looked bad when waving at a blistering high fastball for Scherzer’s nineteenth strikeout. Justin Upton was left with the dubious distinction of recording number twenty, as Scherzer got him to swing over an 85-mph breaking ball for strike three.
This was the second time Detroit found itself on the receiving end of a 20-strikeout performance, having been overwhelmed by Clemens in 1996. Considering it has only happened four times in the exhaustive history of baseball, that appears to be incredibly unfortunate. That Scherzer spent five seasons pitching for the Tigers before departing for Washington will sting even more.
“Tonight, at the end of the night, was a special night,” Scherzer said. “I mean, the strikeouts are sexy. And to be able to punch out 20, it’s sexy.”
Indeed, it’s sexy and historic. Next time, I might even manage to stay awake and watch it.