By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – When a Cy Young Award winner gets rocked for 10 runs, everyone takes notice – most of all the pitcher himself.
Detroit Tigers ace Max Scherzer found himself in that situation June 17, and while the mention of his ugly outing against the Kansas City Royals still seems to irk him, those regrettable four innings spurred Scherzer to make a change that now has him throwing lights-out.
Leading up to that game against the Royals, Scherzer had shown improvement – at least in terms of earned runs allowed – with each of his last five starts. Scherzer had given up seven runs May 21 against Cleveland, then five versus Oakland, then four each to Seattle and Boston. Against the Chicago White Sox on June 12, Scherzer threw a complete-game shutout.
Then, of course, the game against the Royals happened. Scherzer got shelled for 10 runs and got the hook after just four innings.
The number of runs did not bother Scherzer as much as the factors that led up to them, and he analyzed the loss to identify where he had gone wrong. The problems he found were not unfamiliar to him.
“I kind of felt it coming, but I was having success, so when you have results, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Scherzer said Wednesday after surrendering just one run in seven innings to the 51-win Los Angeles Dodgers. “I knew kind of in the background that was going on and I was having a little symptom of that. When things don’t go your way, you look to correct them, and I knew that was kind of the first thing I needed to correct to get back on track because at the end of the day you can’t get caught up in results, and that’s the first and foremost thing.
“If you get caught up in results at this level, eventually some team is going to make you pay, and if you don’t make an adjustment, teams will continue to make you pay,” Scherzer continued. “That’s where I knew I needed to make a quick adjustment. It was really just a mental adjustment more than anything. It wasn’t anything physical, anything mechanical, tweaks that I made. It was just an in-between-the-ears type thing.”
Scherzer needed to approach hitters more aggressively, particularly in 0-2 or 1-2 counts, he said. He had to be more efficient in situations in which he controlled the at bat.
“The biggest thing is just being on a relentless attack, always attacking the strike zone,” Scherzer said. “I’m not trying to throw breaking pitches just off the plate or throw a fastball up just for show. I feel like I’m doing a much better job of being aggressive at the hitter and forcing their hand in those situations. When I do that and make them swing the bat in those situations, that’s typically when I have the most success, and that’s something I made a little tweak in my mindset a couple starts ago, and I’m really seeing the dividends of it.”
Since the debacle against Kansas City, Scherzer has allowed just five runs over his last four starts – one run to Cleveland, two to Houston, one to Tampa Bay and one Wednesday to the Dodgers.
Scherzer said the mindset of staying aggressive played into his success this week just like it did in those earlier starts.
“The moment you become a passive pitcher, you’re going to get ripped,” Scherzer said. “If you try to come out there and pitch to the corners and be fine and start falling behind in counts, they make you pay. I was kind of falling into that in the beginning part of the game. There was a lot of 2-1 counts. That’s not a recipe for success, but later in the game I was able to dial it up and start attacking the zone better, which allows me to use all my pitches in a more efficient way. That’s why I felt like I had success later.”
Scherzer entered this season under tremendous scrutiny after enjoying a banner year in 2013, when he started the All-Star Game and won the Cy Young. Through 19 starts last season, Scherzer had 129.2 innings pitched, a 3.19 ERA and a 13-1 record. This season, he is 11-3 with a 3.35 ERA through 126.1 innings. Through his first 19 starts in 2013, Scherzer had struck out 152 and walked 31. So far this season, Scherzer has struck out 146 and walked 35.
All in all, it has been an impressive follow-up to what was by far the best season of his career to that point. Whether Scherzer stays on his current pace remains to be seen, but he believes he is headed in the right direction.
“At this point in time, I like where I’m at,” Scherzer said. “i feel like all my pitches are coming along. I feel like my curveball is improved from where it was in the beginning of the year. I feel like it’s more consistent from start to start. At this point in time I feel like I’m a better pitcher than I was in April. You’ve got to keep getting better.
“You’ve got to keep getting better,” Scherzer repeated. “That’s got to be your mindset.”