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On May 8, 2001, Randy Johnson struck out 20 Cincinnati Reds in nine innings, becoming the fifth pitcher in MLB history, at the time, to record 20 Ks in a single contest.
Today, five hurlers have accomplished the feat a combined six times. Let’s examine them all and rank them from No. 6 to No. 1, keeping in mind each pitcher’s overall stat line on the day in question, the strength of each opponent and the historical context while applying a healthy dash of subjectivity.
There’s no such thing as an unimpressive 20-strikeout effort. But some were even more impressive than others.
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In 466 career innings spread over eight big league seasons, right-hander Tom Cheney averaged a modest 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings. On Sept. 12, 1962, however, he made major league strikeout history with the Washington Senators.
Facing the Baltimore Orioles on the road, Cheney entered the game with a 5-8 record and had struggled with his control.
Yet the 27-year-old journeyman put it all together for one game, striking out 21 batters in 16 innings as Washington prevailed, 2-1.
Cheney also surrendered 10 hits and walked four. He threw 228 pitches. And, of course, he spread his strikeouts over an extra seven frames. Eight of his Ks came after the ninth inning, which makes the feat both more and less impressive, depending on whether you prefer dominance or stamina.
“To go 16 innings? Come on, man,” Orioles left fielder Boog Powell, part of a solid O’s lineup that also included future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, recalled, per ESPN’s Doug Williams. “That was a special day, it really was.”
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Roger Clemens will appear twice on this list and in reverse chronological order.
The second time the Rocket struck out 20 in a single game was on Sept. 18, 1996, in a start against the Detroit Tigers in the Motor City.
Clemens and the Boston Red Sox would miss the postseason that year, and the right-hander entered the game against Detroit with a pedestrian 9-12 record. But against a woeful Tigers club that would lose 109 games in ’96, he tossed a five-hit, no-run, no-walk, complete-game shutout and matched his own nine-inning MLB strikeout record.
He also threw 151 pitches at age 34, which almost surely wouldn’t happen in today’s pitch-count-conscious game.
Most notably, Clemens was the only player at the time to punch out 20 in nine frames, meaning he was simply competing against himself.
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The most recent member of the exclusive 20-punch-out fraternity, Max Scherzer reached the milestone against his former employer.
On May 11, 2016, Scherzer and the Washington Nationals hosted the Detroit Tigers. Mad Max had pitched five seasons with Detroit and won a Cy Young Award as a Tiger in 2013. Now, he was facing a potent lineup led by ex-teammate Miguel Cabrera that would finish fourth in baseball with a .769 OPS in ’16.
Scherzer wasn’t perfect. He surrendered two runs on six hits, including solo homers by shortstop Jose Iglesias and right fielder J.D. Martinez.
He also racked up his K total during an era in which strikeouts have been more prevalent. MLB hitters whiffed a then-record 38,982 times in 2016, a mark that has been broken every season since.
That said, given the strength of his opponent and the fact that no other pitcher of his era has replicated the feat, Scherzer deserves plenty of credit.
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Randy Johnson won the National League Cy Young Award and was co-MVP of the World Series next to fellow ace Curt Schilling with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. So the Big Unit’s 20-strikeout performance in ’01 can almost get lost in the shuffle.
Yet Johnson was indeed dazzling on May 8 when he mowed down 20 Cincinnati Reds hitters while allowing three hits, no walks and one run. The Reds weren’t a powerhouse that year, but they featured some more-than-competent hitters, including third baseman Aaron Boone (.834 OPS) and a 31-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. (.898 OPS).
Johnson’s lone run, surrendered on a single by Ruben Rivera in the fifth inning, denied him an official place in the nine-inning, 20 K club. The D-backs managed to score only once in regulation, and Johnson exited after the ninth with the score tied 1-1. He’d thrown 124 pitches.
Arizona went on to win, 4-3 in 11 innings, but the game was counted as an extra-inning affair. Johnson took the no-decision and an undeserved asterisk on his 20-strikeout gem.
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Bleacher Report’s Zachary D. Rymer recently made the case for Chicago Cubs right-hander Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout effort against the Houston Astros as the greatest pitching performance in MLB history. It’s a defensible argument.
On May 6, 1998, Wood allowed no runs, no walks, one hit batter and one hit on a grounder to the left side by Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez that could have been ruled an error. It was nearly a 20-strikeout no-hitter.
And Wood, then a 20-year-old rookie making his fifth big league start, did it against a Houston lineup that ranked third in the NL with a .792 OPS in ’98 and was fronted by the Killer Bs, second baseman Craig Biggio and first baseman Jeff Bagwell.
Wood was undaunted and turned in a masterful outing. It was the most masterful ever if you go by his game score of 105.
Or you can ask a future Hall of Famer who was on the losing end.
“I was [strikeout] No. 21 standing on deck if they didn’t catch the ball when Derek [Bell] struck out,” Bagwell later remembered, per MLB.com’s Alyson Footer. “It’s the most dominant game I’ve ever seen in person.”
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Wood’s performance might belong in the No. 1 position by many metrics, but Roger Clemens earns top billing as the first pitcher to scale the nine-inning, 20-strikeout mountain.
In 1986, Clemens was a 23-year-old phenom coming off shoulder surgery. He had the makings of an ace, but his long-term durability remained a question mark.
On April 29 of that year, he helped ease any doubts. Over nine brilliant innings, he allowed three hits, no walks and one run while fanning 20 Seattle Mariners at Fenway Park.
That M’s team wasn’t the ’27 New York Yankees, but it would finish a respectable 11th in baseball with a .724 OPS.
Mostly, though, Clemens is HERE because he did it before anyone else.
Steve Carlton struck out 19 in nine innings with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1969. Tom Seaver did the same with the New York Mets in 1970. Nolan Ryan, the career strikeout king, matched the feat with the then-California Angels in 1974.
But no one had made it to 20 in regulation until Clemens. Even if some future hurler fans 27 of 27, that will never change.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.