Max Scherzer earned it.
That's what Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland indicated when he tabbed Scherzer to start Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Oakland A's. The exact phrase he used, as reported by George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press, was that it was "hard to argue" with Scherzer being the best man for the job.
It's even harder to argue now.
Scherzer took the ball in front of 48,401 hostile fans at O.co Coliseum on Friday night and had them quietly twiddling their thumbs for much of the evening. He allowed only two earned runs on three hits and two walks. And ultimately, he set new postseason career highs for innings pitched (seven) and strikeouts (11) to lead the Tigers to a hard-fought 3-2 victory and a 1-0 series lead.
There was some debate as to whether Scherzer was the right choice to start Game 1. Not a lot of it, mind you, but apparently enough for an ESPN poll. If there was enough debate for one of those, there was surely enough for some water-cooler chatter elsewhere.
Leyland could have gone with old standby Justin Verlander, which was the no-brainer choice last year when he was the reigning AL Cy Young and MVP. And all he did in the 2012 ALDS was limit the A's to one run in 16 innings over two starts, the latter of which was a series-clinching shutout on the road in Game 5.
Or Leyland could have gone with Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 American League ERA champion. Heck, even ground-ball merchant Doug Fister would have been a solid choice. Barring notorious BABIP magnet Rick Porcello, Leyland could have rationalized any choice he made.
But Leyland didn't make any choice. He made the right choice.
Scherzer made one bad pitch all night on Friday: a fastball to Yoenis Cespedes in the seventh inning that caught too much of the plate. Cespedes promptly sent the pitch into orbit for a two-run homer that narrowed Detroit's lead to 3-2 and woke the crowd up something fierce.
What seemed to be the turning of the tide, however, was soon quelled by Scherzer's hand. He followed Cespedes' home run by retiring the next three batters in a row, the last a swinging strikeout of Daric Barton.
For Scherzer, that was the cap on a start that came off as feeling, well, typical. Aside from Cespedes' moonshot, Scherzer was able to do his usual Max Scherzer thing.
After the game, he indicated that was more or less the whole idea.
"It was the same as always," said Scherzer when asked about his mindset heading into Game 1. "I don't get caught up in the hoopla. I don't worry about where I'm pitching or if I'm pitching Game 1 or Game 5. It doesn't matter."
But then he hinted there might have been a little extra something going on in his head: "When you're facing a postseason team like the A's, you have to bring your A-game."
The A's certainly weren't a team to be taken lightly. The club as a whole cut down on the strikeout habit that served as its Achilles' heel in 2012, going from placing third in MLB in strikeout percentage to placing 20th. And like it did last year, Oakland's offense exploded in the second half, leading the majors in home runs and placing behind only the Boston Red Sox in runs scored.
Scherzer was one of the more notable dragons slain by Oakland's offense in the second half. When the A's faced the right-hander in late August, they touched him up for six runs (five earned) in only five innings. By Game Score's reckoning, it was Scherzer's worst start of the season.
Scherzer said after the game that his rough outing against the A's in August didn't lead to any real adjustments ahead of Game 1's performance. For him, he just did his usual thing.
"Tonight I just thought I came out there with a good fastball and good changeup," said the 29-year-old right-hander, "and I was able to mix in some curveballs to the lefties to help slow them down. I made some big pitches with the curveball in some situations to help generate some outs."
Oakland A's manager Bob Melvin singled out the fastball as a notable factor.
"He's always tough," said Melvin, adding: "If you don't see him that often, his fastball gets on you a bit quicker because of how his velocity plays. He has such good extension."
Concerning Friday night, however, Melvin doesn't know the half of it.
Per Brooks Baseball, Scherzer's heater was sitting at 94.9 miles per hour and got as high as 99.2 at one point. He was also getting an average of 8.64 inches of horizontal break on it.
His season averages in those two departments: 93.96 miles per hour and 7.88 inches. The latter is impressive enough, as no right-hander who threw as many as 500 four-seamers generated as much horizontal movement as Scherzer.
So with even more movement and velocity in Game 1, Scherzer's already fantastic fastball was more fantastic.
Scherzer's changeup, meanwhile, did its job. While his overpowering fastball ended up accounting for over half of his 20 swinging strikes, the changeup took care of the other half. At around 85.3 miles per hour, it was coming in roughly 10 miles per hour slower than his hard stuff on Friday night, with its typical nasty movement to boot. Most of the swings against it were of the helpless variety.
As for the curveball, it's actually one of Scherzer's newer weapons, one that he used almost exclusively against left-handed batters in 2013 after giving it a tryout toward the end of 2012. It proved to be a lefty killer, as they only hit .194 against it with two extra-base hits.
And Scherzer is right about the curve getting him some outs against the A's in Game 1. He didn't get any whiffs on the curves he threw, but both of the curves that were put in play on Friday night went for outs.
Scherzer credited two other things for his success in Game 1.
"I thought I did a good job of attacking the zone and throwing first-pitch strikes—something I always pride myself in—and was able to get deep into the game," he said.
Scherzer threw 78 of his 118 pitches for strikes. That's 66 percent, a mirror image of his regular-season rate of...66 percent.
As for first-pitch strikes, Scherzer threw 18 of those to the 26 batters he faced. That's 69.2 percent, a rate slightly higher than his regular-season rate of 64 percent. Which, for the record, was a new career high.
Add it all up, and you get another exclamation mark in a season that's been full of them for Scherzer. The regular season that saw him finish with a 21-3 record was no accident. Wins are fluky, but posting a 2.90 ERA with a 10.1 K/9 and a league-best 0.97 WHIP is as good a way as any to keep 'em coming. The best way to a great record is through great pitching.
And to that extent, not even one of the guys who might have started Game 1 could deny Scherzer's claim to the honor.
"Max is the best pitcher in the American League," said Verlander before Game 1 when asked if he was disappointed that he wasn't chosen to start. "The only reason this is being brought up is because of what I've done over the last couple of years. Like I said, Max without a doubt is the best pitcher in the American League, and he absolutely earned this."
He sure did, and he sure made the most of it.
And if Verlander, Sanchez and Fister follow Scherzer's lead, he's likely not going to be done making the most of Game 1s.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Quotes obtained firsthand.
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