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Nightengale: All-Star Start Shows Max Scherzer is the Game’s Best Pitcher

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In this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo, Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer winds up during the first inning in Game 5 of baseball's National League Division Series, against the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Washington. Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The Arizona Diamondbacks gave up on him eight years ago, believing he would eventually break down, and amount to nothing more than a journeyman reliever.

The Detroit Tigers stopped negotiating with him three years ago, convinced that giving him anything more than their final offer that spring, would be a gross overpay.

Now, just two weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer not only is the oldest player to be starting in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game (8 ET, FOX) at Marlins Park, but he might be the best pitcher in all of baseball.

And actually getting better.

Scherzer will be only the fifth pitcher in history to start a game for the National League and American League. It could have been a tough call if three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers was eligible after pitching Sunday, but no, NL manager Joe Maddon says, Scherzer was his choice all along.

“I have a ton of respect for Mr. Kershaw,’’ Maddon says, “but I am being honest, I had already chosen Max.’’

The man is that good, sending all of the haters, and all of those who ever doubted him, vanishing quietly into the night.

Scherzer, a five-time All-Star and two-time Cy Young winner, insists the critics never fuelled him, but, oh, yes, he remembers.

“Does it still resonate with me? Yes.’’ Scherzer told USA TODAY Sports. “But it’s not my motivation. My motivation is not to go out there and prove people wrong. Basing your results on somebody else’s negativity is not the best way to have success.

“That’s fool’s gold to use that.

“For me, you have to be driven to win, and that goal to win, is much stronger than anything anybody else can say.’’

Scherzer, 10-5 with a league-leading 2.10 ERA and National League leading 173 strikeouts, is must-watch TV. Every time he steps on the mound, you get the feeling he’s going to throw a no-hitter or strike out 20 batters.

He has taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning or later in 11 of his 85 starts. He has struck out at least 10 batters in 60 games, the 11th-most in baseball history. Only 12 other players have had at least 31 games of 10 or more strikeouts and one or fewer earned runs.

The dude is that good, and for you own good, don’t ever make the mistake of doubting him.

“I remember two years ago at the All-Star Game,’’ New York Mets manager Terry Collins says, “I put him in there for an inning. He’s throwing 100-mph. He came back, and I said, “What the hell was that for?’

“He tells me, ‘I wanted to start today. So I just wanted you what you were missing.’’’

Just to emphasize his point, Scherzer threw a no-hitter and struck out 17 Mets later that season.

“If you don’t get a couple of hits off him early,’’ Collins says, “watch out, because when he smells it, you are done. The night he pitched a no-hitter against us, he knew it about the sixth inning. We knew it too. We had no chance.

“That’s just the way he is.’’

Just ask the Marlins, who were nearly Scherzer’s latest no-hit victims two weeks ago, not collecting their first hit until the eighth inning.

“We were really fortunate we didn’t get no-hit,’’ Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich said. “When he knows he’s close to completing a game or finishing off a no-hitter, everything ticks up. His velocity gets more life to it. His slider is a little tighter. Everything is better.

“You know you’re completely screwed when start seeing him stomping around the mound, chomping on his gum, and cussing. That’s when he has those 20-strikeout games and no-hitters.

“It’s awesome to watch, unless it happens to you.’’

Scherzer is the East Coast version of Kershaw, the Bob Gibson’s of their generation, the ultimate competitors who not only want to beat you, but humiliate you.

“You see a lot of the same qualities in Clayton and Max when they’re out there,’’ says Dodgers All-Star pitcher Alex Wood. “They seem like the nicest, humblest guys for the days in between their starts, but you get them on their start day, you don’t want to mess with them on the field or even before the game. They lock it in.’’

Really, says American League All-Star starter Chris Sale, teammates with Scherzer in a summer league team in La Crosse, Wis., says there’s no one in the game like him.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy compete,’’ says Sale, “as hard as he competes day in and day out. The fire, the intensity, the role model he can be for kids coming up to take the bull by the horns and just compete.’’

Scherzer, whose devastating slider has resulted in hitters swinging and missing 50% of the time, yielding a mere .081 batting average, according to FanGraphs, is called Mad Max for a reason. He studies videotapes. He pores over all of the analytical charts. He spends virtually every waking moment preparing for his next start. He even runs the along the city streets for at least five miles on the day after every start.

“Nowadays, with all of the strength and conditioning guys, they monitor everything you do,’’ Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux says. “Not Max. He’s leaving the ballpark and out there running around the city with the GPS on his phone, entertaining himself.

“I tried running with him once, and he fired me. I wasn’t a good pace-setter.’’

And, oh, whatever you do, don’t ever anger him.

Three years ago, the Tigers tried to sign Scherzer to a contract extension, locking him up before he’d be eligible for free agency. They offered a six-year, $144 million contract. And when he rejected it, the Tigers publicly revealed the offer.

Scherzer was absolutely infuriated. He felt as if the Tigers’ management turned fans against him, leading to him being openly ridiculed and scorned.

“The business side of this business is ugly, but money isn’t a motivating factor for me,’’ Scherzer says, “being a better pitcher drives me.’’

Scherzer, gambling $144 million on his own ability, went out and produced an 18-5 record and 3.15 ERA, striking out 252 in 220 innings, leading the Tigers to the AL Central title.

Three months later, he signed a record seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals.

“It was a scary commitment for a pitcher, a historic amount of money,’’ says Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, who drafted Scherzer when he was the Diamondbacks’ scouting director. “But I knew this kid so well from watching him back in his days at the University of Missouri.

“Everyone was talking so much about how he’d break down because of his delivery, but when dwarfed everything was the way he attacked hitters. He had a real dislike for hitters. He was so competitive, he wanted to strike out everyone.

“So with a contract like this, you better know what this kind of money would do to him? Will it adversely affect him? Or will it motivate him?

“Well, what it’s done is feed the beast, and that contract has only fuelled him.’’

Scherzer has gone 44-24 with a 2.71 ERA since joining the Nationals, striking out 733 batters in 585 1/3 innings. He not only has been one of the finest pitchers in baseball, but he has been influential in Stephen Strasburg and the rest of the rotation’s success.

He has made everyone tougher, more accountable, and has the Nationals running away with the National League East.

“We all feed off his mentality, not just the pitchers,’’ Nationals All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper says. “I don’t think there’s anybody in baseball like Max. Nothing is ever too big for him.

“He’s one of the best to ever throw the pill.’’

Now, everyone will be able to see Scherzer on stage Tuesday night, showing the baseball world why he may not only be the game’s finest pitcher, but moving closer to an invitation one day to Cooperstown.

“The Hall of Fame, that’s a long ways away,’’ Scherzer said. “The moment you start worrying about that stuff, it makes your head spin.’’

Yet, with a chance of winning his third Cy Young in five years this season, and producing more single-season strikeouts than any pitcher besides only Walter Johnson in Washington D.C. history, Scherzer could find himself in rare air.

“He has such high expectations of himself, and holds himself to such a high standard,’’ Maddux says, “that he will not accept anything less than that. He’s definitely not content just winning Cy Youngs, pitching no-hitters and having 20-strikeout games.

“He’s got a pretty good trophy case as it is, but he wants to have an expansion.’’

Stay tuned, this Mad Max Show is just getting started.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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