MIAMI, June 28 (UPI) -- Max Scherzer's lips only slip slightly when he answers questions regarding his blueprint for greatness.
The three-time Cy Young Award winner already was imposing on the hill, even before he recently picked up a black eye during a batting practice session. Now he is downright terrifying for opposing hitters, who admit as much. He even instills that fear in some of his teammates, until they get to know him.
Adam Eaton has been Scherzer's teammate on the Nationals since 2017, but played in the same division with the star pitcher earlier when Scherzer played for the Detroit Tigers. He remembers a specific moment when thinking of Scherzer's aggressive aura.
A new Tigers player jogged over to Scherzer and went to give him a high-five.
"He liked flipped," Eaton said of Scherzer. "I was like 'Oh, my gosh.' You hear stories that he is really intense, and passionate, but he doesn't like to be told 'good job' during his starts? It was a little extreme for me."
Scherzer was his typically dominant self Tuesday against the Miami Marlins, allowing five hits and one run while tossing 10 strikeouts in eight innings. He has won his last five starts and has a 0.97 ERA in June. His 2.52 ERA for the season is the second-lowest of his career. But don't expect to see his teammates praising him during games, that includes fist-pounding.
Eaton now understands why Scherzer is the way he is. He sees the camaraderie as a distraction, not something essential to success.
"It kinda dehumanizes him a little bit, because most humans ... most of us want a pat on the back," Eaton said. "But for him, it's all business and he wants to stay where he needs to be."
Eaton's tale is just one of the serious Scherzer stories shared in clubhouse cubicles. Scherzer said he can't pinpoint whether it's something he does to adopt that demeanor or if it's natural. It's irrelevant at this point, as Scherzer's ferocious attitude on the mound is concreted with his pristine performances.
MLB pitchers prepare in a series of ways for a start. Scherzer follows a lot of the routine steps, like watching film and studying lineups. He isn't quick to share the specifics of that preparation, which he says is the same for each start.
Scherzer's imposing mound presence is mirrored in the clubhouse, with some of the younger Nationals players hesitant to ask about his approach to the game. Scherzer has had some pitchers ask him about his process, but he admitted that not every young arm from the Nationals has sought his advice.
His shadow sometimes shades interviews, with even veteran players becoming less talkative when they notice Scherzer in earshot.
Scherzer's intensity is a mix of ingredients, but his primary objective is not beating himself. Opposing hitters might not know which of his four sensational offerings he is about to heave toward home, but they do know he's trying to put it in the strike zone.
"It's a mindset coming in that I choose to throw strikes," Scherzer said. "I choose to throw strike 1. If I'm going to get beat, I'm going to get beat with the other team beating me. I really hate when I beat myself."
The six-time All-Star has led the league in innings pitched in two of his last three seasons. His ERA over his past six seasons is nearly an entire run lower than it was in his first six seasons.
Scherzer is like any pitcher in that he hates allowing runs. But he can live with it if he knows he is at his best and most-intense.
"I can hold my head up if i give up a bunch of runs but i attacked the zone," Scherzer said. "I get more upset when I walk guys and I'm not pitching the way I know I'm capable of pitching. For me, that's just a between-the-ears decision you have to make every single time out."
Marlins catcher Bryan Holaday was Scherzer's teammate for three years in Detroit and still sees the intensity Scherzer had when they first met.
"He didn't get a great jump on a single to left [Tuesday] and didn't score from second base," Holaday said. "He was kicking himself and talking to the third base coach about it. It's the little things. He takes pride in everything he does and tries to be the best at everything.
"He goes about his business and works as hard as anybody, especially from the preparation standpoint of developing scouting reports and trying to get as much information as he can with each guy."
Kurt Suzuki is now in Holaday's position, literally and figuratively, in relation to Scherzer. The Nationals catcher said his main goal is to get on the same page as the ace.
The duo doesn't try a very complicated approach heading into his starts, in part because of Scherzer's mentality.
"The guy is one of the fiercest competitors I've played with, if not the most intense guy," Suzuki said. "That's just who he is. That's what makes him so good."
Advice for young Scherzer
"You don't walk into this league and become an ace."
Those were the words former All-Star reliever Tom Gordon told Scherzer during his rookie season in 2008 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Nationals star said he thinks the advice means not to try and do too much when you are a young pitcher.
"You have to get experience and figure out what you are good at and what you aren't good at and try to perfect every little thing in your game," Scherzer said. "As long as you keep your mind on the process and not the results, that's typically when you see guys make jumps and continue to have more success."
That equation makes sense when you look at Scherzer, who has four "plus pitches," while some pitchers are still working to manicure one.
Marlins first baseman Neil Walker went 0-for-3 against Scherzer on Tuesday. Scherzer struck out Walker in their first exchange, tossing a curveball, two fastballs and a changeup, before fanning the infielder with a cutter. Walker is now hitting .219 against Scherzer for his career. He has nine strikeouts and seven hits in those 32 at-bats since 2011.
Those stats are somewhat respectable for a hitter against Scherzer, whose 10.504 strikeouts per nine innings pitched ranks fourth in MLB history.
"He is very much aware of what you've done against him in the past and what you've done against him in that particular game," Walker said. "He's very very aware of all of those things."
Walker said its usually easier to prepare for a pitcher you have faced numerous times, compared to a rookie or an arm in and out of the Minor League Baseball system. With Scherzer, one of his best hopes is that the Nationals ace has inadvertently "tipped" his pitches in recent games.
Walker watched Scherzer's most-recent starts to see if he had been throwing a certain pitch more often than others and determine if he was feeling more comfortable with that pitch. He formulated an approach based on that information.
Eaton initially was shocked by Scherzer's intensity, but he now loves it.
"Now I realize why he does that and there is a meaning to the madness," Eaton said. "Everything he does, he does with a purpose. There is no wasted movement, no wasted throw, no wasted energy. Everything is calculated, which is really neat to watch."
Scherzer's dominance has demanded the ears of his teammates, even if they aren't always quick to spend time at his locker. Infielders move wherever he wants them to position themselves when he takes the hill. He also has earned the respect of Eaton and Nationals players for his desire to pick up the bat and take practice swings. Eaton said Scherzer likes to hit more than any pitcher he has seen, despite the pitcher posting paltry plate numbers (6-for-40 in 2019).
But the psychology of the cat-and-mouse game typically favors Scherzer. On Tuesday, the Marlins sat in for one of his sessions.
"Am i swinging out of the zone and in a spot he wants me to swing in? We all know what our strengths are and know what our weaknesses are and know that the pitchers know that as well," Walker said.
"You try to determine if a guy is the type of pitcher who is going to go ultimately with his strengths or try to go against your weaknesses. A guy like Max, he can do both. He can exploit you in your weak spot in the strike zone a lot of times, but he can also stick with his power stuff and whatever he may be feeling that day.
"Those are things as the game goes along you have to adjust to, but you also have to be really good about if you get a pitch in your spot, where if he makes a mistake you have to take advantage of it.
"With a guy like him, you aren't going to get many second chances."