It seems fitting that Max Scherzer pitches tonight with the opportunity to place the Nationals starting pitchers in fairly unique company. Having set a franchise best yesterday when Doug Fister extended the starters’ scoreless innings streak to 41 1/3 innings, Scherzer takes the mound against Philadelphia with the opportunity to surpass the 2008 Cleveland Indians streak of 44 1/3 scoreless innings as the second longest such streak in the expansion era. Scherzer was the high-priced glamour free agent signing this off season, the guy brought in to lead them to a title, and so far this season he’s been as good as advertised. Now he simply needs to do what he does, again.
The record, according to mlb.com, is 54 innings, which the Baltimore Orioles set in 1974. That ’74 Orioles team had a few guys who knew a thing or two about pitching: future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer suffered through elbow problems that year, missing time, and it was the off year in a string of three AL Cy Young awards in four years; three-time All Star Dave McNally who finished 2nd in the Cy Young race in 1970 and fourth in both ’69 and ‘71; All Star Ross Grimsley who’d finish seventh in the Cy Young race in 1978; and Mike Cuellar who was a four-time All Star, won the AL Cy Young in 1969 while leading the Orioles to the World Series, and finished both fourth and sixth in Cy Young balloting in 1970 and 1974 respectively. Cuellar threw two complete game shutouts during that streak while Grimsley, Palmer, and McNally each threw one.
It’s a different era.
Shutting down the Phillies and passing the 2008 Indians isn’t fait accompli, so this isn’t horse meeting cart. Well, not entirely. I like to think of it as historical perspective. When your pitching staff is mentioned in the same breath with Cy Young recipients, a Hall of Famer, and a franchise that dominated the AL throughout the decade of the 70s, you’re doing okay.
The 2008 Indians squad that didn’t allow a run across five starts (and didn’t allow an earned run across six) boasted both Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia. 2008 was the season where Sabathia was traded to the Brewers, pitched a kajillion innings down the stretch to help Milwaukee to their first postseason since 1982, and didn’t do Sabathia any favors in regards to arm durability. He pitched 253 innings that regular season, following 241 the prior year. Lee did alright for himself that year too. He made his first All Star appearance, led the AL in wins, ERA, and ERA+ with 22, 2.54, and 167 respectively, and won the Cy Young. The next year he would be rented out to Philadelphia for their run to the Series, only to then be traded to Seattle in the offseason. Another interesting fact is that in ’08, Lee made $4M dollars total on the season while the Nats have spent half that in the six starts comprising the streak.
Speaking of Philadelphia, on this season, Scherzer has faced the Phillies twice, once at Citizens Bank Park, and he’s allowed two earned runs in 14 innings, striking out 17. That was early in the season, however, in Scherzer’s second and third starts, so who knows what’s likely to happen tonight. He’s coming off a no-hitter against Pittsburgh, a near perfect game, and has nearly tossed two straight no-hitters. In his last two starts, he’s tossed back-to-back complete game shutouts and allowed one hit in 18 innings while striking out 26.
It’s sort of impossible to fathom just how good he is this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scherzer went all Kerry Woods and struck out 20 today. As a team, the Phillies strike out in only 19.1% of their at-bats, including pitchers, which is the eighth best rate in the Majors and third best in the NL, but Scherzer is striking out 10.82 per nine, just north of 31% of the batters he faces, so something tonight has to give. I’m guessing it’s F.P. Santangelo’s thesaurus of Scherzer superlatives. The guy is dealing and there’s little to stand in his way, especially the bottom-dwelling Phillies.
Let’s take a step back to appreciate just what the Nationals starting pitchers are doing as well. If you stop and think that in the entirety of Major League Baseball this season, there have been 296 times when a starting pitcher has lasted five or more innings and not allowed an earned run (the Nationals have done this 15 times, the Mets 12) out of a total of 2,188 pitcher starts (that comes out to 13.5% of all pitcher starts end under these conditions), and the Nationals starters have done this in five straight starts. Stephen Strasburg, coming off the disabled list, was the only one to last less than seven (he went five while allowing four hits and striking out six).
The Nats don’t necessarily need me to toot their horns, but, you know, toot toot.