By Ashley Dunkak
Fans at Comerica Park Monday night got their money’s worth. With the bases loaded and a 3-2 count, one of the American League’s best pitchers stared down one of the league’s hottest-hitting sluggers.
People rose from their seats at Comerica Park, roaring and clapping as Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer faced the Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Davis. Davis had entered the game with a major league-leading 23 home runs and a .335 batting average. He had already belted one homer in Monday’s game.
Scherzer neutralized the threat with one more pitch.
“To get him out in that situation, probably that was the game right there,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “That’s a nice challenge for the fans and everybody else, and tonight Max won the challenge.”
It was one more milestone in what has been a career year for Scherzer. In addition to recording the first 10-0 start since Roger Clemens in 1997, Scherzer has struck out at least six batters in 14 straight starts. The last player to do that was Pedro Martinez, who did so in his brilliant years of 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Scherzer’s walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) is 0.913. His ERA is 3.08. He has logged 116 strikeouts this season, putting his average at 10.8 per nine innings. He has lasted at least six innings in 12 of his 14 starts. In short, he looks like an easy All-Star selection.
Though Scherzer was good before, his numbers this season are stunning, particularly when most expected teammate Justin Verlander, the 2011 Cy Young winner and MVP, to be the Tigers pitcher in the spotlight.
What leads to all Scherzer’s fantastic stats is thorough study of batters, constant improvement of his pitching arsenal, planning sessions with the catcher and pitching coach, and instinct on the mound.
The pitches themselves, of course, are the most obvious weapons.
“My stuff is at its best it’s ever been,” Scherzer said. “Last year I thought my slider really progressed and was the best it’s ever been in my career, and then obviously this year I’ve been able to add another pitch, add a curveball, and that’s made me even a better pitcher so that I’m able to get left-handers out more consistently, and because of that, I feel like that’s why I’m having even more success this year.”
Meaningful interaction between Scherzer and the catcher, though, is just as essential. With regular catcher Alex Avila on the disabled list, Brayan Pena set up behind the plate Monday, only the third time he had caught Scherzer this season. Before the game, Scherzer, Pena and pitching coach Jeff Jones discussed the game plan.
“It stays broad for the most part, but there will be specific situations where we’ll say, ‘I don’t like a change-up to this guy. I’d rather have the slider,’” he explained, “or, ‘Early in the count I might want a slider, late in the count I want a change-up.’ Stuff like that. And so Pena did a great job today because it felt like we were on the same page the whole time.”
It looked like it too. Scherzer got ahead in the count 0-2 at least eight times Monday, an edge that helped him record 10 strikeouts against the Orioles.
“When you get the 0-2 counts, I don’t care who you are,” Scherzer said. “You can be Miguel Cabrera – it’s tough to hit in an 0-2 count. That’s something I always try to focus on is how to get into those type of counts – 0-2, 1-2 and what pitch it is going to take to get there.”
In Scherzer’s estimation, the biggest pitch of Monday’s game was not the one that struck out Davis, ending the inning and dealing an emotional blow to the Orioles.
For the pitcher, the pivotal moment came two batters earlier, when outfielder Nick Markakis came to the plate. Scherzer threw him a solid change-up in the dirt, but Markakis took it for a ball. The count was 3-1, and Scherzer prepared to throw a fastball down and away. He knew it would have to be a good one.
Instead, Pena called for a third-straight change-up. Scherzer understood.
“Something clicked,” Scherzer said. “I saw what page he was on, I saw where his thought process was, and I was willing to trust him, and that just shows you what it means to be on the bench. A lot of times we’re goofing off, we’re talking about other things, but there’s times when those conversations that we have mean a lot.
“I trusted him in that situation that I could execute a 3-1 change-up, and that was the right pitch,” Scherzer added, “and I felt like that was the biggest pitch in the inning to allow me to get the two outs so I could make good pitches to the other batters.”
Scherzer will not say much about comparisons between him and guys like Clemens and Martinez, and he does not want to talk about the All-Star game. Really, he just wants to win, and the Tigers have been doing a lot of that recently – in no small part because of him.
“You can certainly take your hat off to Max for doing what he’s done,” Leyland said. “I think Max will tell you the biggest part about that is the Tigers won. That’s a good thing.”