WASHINGTON — Just one strike from a perfect game, Max Scherzer saw it slip away with a misplaced slider. Or, some thought, a misplaced elbow.
Scherzer lost his bid in agonizing fashion, plunking a batter with two outs in the ninth inning before finishing off a no-hitter June 20 in the Washington Nationals’ 6-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
A letdown? Yeah, a little.
“I mean there is, just because you’re so close, one strike away from a perfect game,” he said. “But to get a no-hitter in front of these fans, there’s nothing better.”
Pinch-hitter Jose Tabata was all that stood between Scherzer and pitching’s ultimate achievement. Tabata fouled off three 2-2 deliveries, then seemed to slightly drop his left elbow and got nicked.
Scherzer immediately grimaced as the ball ricocheted to the ground. The crowd at Nationals Park seemed stunned, too, and surely many wondered whether Tabata leaned into the 86 mph pitch with his elbow protector to get hit.
“He tried to throw me a slider inside,” Tabata said. “The slider, no breaking. I stayed right there and it got me.”
“That’s my job. I got to get on base whatever the situation,” he said.
Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos had a different view. “His elbow was a little bit in the strike zone. That’s what I saw in the videos. But it’s happened,” he said.
Scherzer came within one strike of throwing the 22nd perfect game in major league history since 1900. If anything, Scherzer’s teammates seemed to take the near-miss harder than he did.
“I got down into a squat and just, I don’t know, I wanted to cry,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “To be able to see a perfect game, be a part of that, would’ve been awesome.”
Said Nationals manager Matt Williams: “He hit him with the baseball. It’s difficult when that happens.”
As to whether he thought about discussing the play with plate umpire Mike Muchlinski, Williams said, “I think that’s irrelevant at this point. The last thing I’m going to do is walk onto the field and mess up Maxie’s rhythm. That would be a crying shame. I ain’t doing that.”
Scherzer (8-5) retired Josh Harrison on a deep fly to left for the final out and was swallowed up by jubilant Nationals near the mound.
“Pretty easy to do,” Scherzer said of keeping his cool. “Probably took two seconds. I realized I lost the perfect game. You just move on. Finish this thing out.”
The 30-year-old righty struck out 10 in his second straight dominant performance, and was cheered by a crowd of 41,104.
Scherzer got help from his infield in the late innings. In the eighth, shifted second baseman Danny Espinosa barely threw out Pedro Alvarez from shallow right field to end the inning.
“I got to that ball and just knew I had to get rid of it quick,” Espinosa said. “I was able to get him.”
Leading off the ninth, third baseman Anthony Rendon ran hard to catch a foul pop by Gregory Polanco, and wound up bent over the dugout railing.
In his previous start, Scherzer took a perfect game into the seventh at Milwaukee and finished with a one-hitter and 16 strikeouts. The lone hit was a leadoff single by Carlos Gomez just beyond reach of Rendon, who was playing second base.
Scherzer turned in perhaps the most magnificent consecutive starts in the majors since Johnny Vander Meer pitched back-to-back no-hitters for Cincinnati in 1938.
Scherzer threw his third career shutout. He had one in 219 lifetime starts before these two in a row. “My last few starts, this is some of the best baseball I’ve thrown,” he said.
Signed to a $210 million, seven-year contract in the offseason after leaving Detroit, the 2013 AL Cy Young winner pitched the second no-hitter in Nationals’ history. Jordan Zimmermann threw one against the Marlins last year to end the regular season.
“He’s just an unbelievable pitcher, unbelievable clubhouse guy, and he’s worth every penny he gets,” Harper said.
It was the fourth no-hitter in the city’s baseball history — Walter Johnson and Bob Burke threw them for the old Washington Senators.
This was the second no-hitter of the season. San Francisco rookie Chris Heston did it June 9 against the Mets.
Scherzer’s gem marked the second major feat in the big leagues in two days. On June 19, Alex Rodriguez got his 3,000th career hit for the Yankees.
Scherzer threw 106 pitches, 82 for strikes. He was throwing fastballs in the upper 90s and used a wicked slider in lowering his ERA to 1.76.
The Pirates twice hit balls to the warning track in his first time through the order. Harper hit his 23rd homer and drove in two runs. He had missed two games after straining his hamstring.
Francisco Liriano (4-6) took the loss.