The game itself had a playoff atmosphere, with defending Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer starting for the Tigers and All-Star snub Garrett Richards for the Angels, and superstars Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout playing on the same field.
However, based on the outcome, the Angels can’t be too excited about the prospects of facing Scherzer and the Tigers again in the postseason.
Though he wasn’t at his best, Scherzer still stole the show Thursday night as the right-hander struck out 11 batters over seven innings and powered the Tigers to a 6-4 win.
Scherzer was untouchable through three innings and retired the first nine hitters he faced, punctuated by an impressive third inning in which he struck out the side—all of them of the swing-and-miss variety.
Am I the only one to notice Scherzer has categorically denied every attempt by a Halo batsman to reach first base thru 3 inns?— Bob Wojnowski (@bobwojnowski) July 25, 2014
Scherzer’s bid for perfection ended the following inning with a leadoff single by Kole Calhoun, and the Angels eventually put runners on first and third with two outs. However, he was bailed out of the jam when the next batter, Erick Aybar, popped up a bunt attempt for the third out.
The Angels would get to Scherzer in the fifth inning, though, as they sent eight batters to the plate and pushed across three runs to take a 3-1 lead. The right-hander allowed four hits and a walk in the frame, but was able to avoid further damage with swinging strikeouts of Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton to end the threat.
Detroit answered the Angels’ three-spot with one of their own in the sixth inning, as they regained the lead, 4-3, and more importantly, put the game back in their ace’s hands. After that, Scherzer showed exactly why he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball, retiring the side in order in both the sixth and seventh innings while striking out four of six batters.
Overall, Scherzer yielded three runs on six hits over seven innings, with 76 of his 102 pitches going for strikes, including 14 swinging strikes. The right-hander fanned 11 in the game—his fourth double-digit strikeout performance of the season—and walked one batter.
Scherzer spoke about his performance after the game (via ESPN.com):
"I felt good with everything tonight and had all four pitches going. I hadn't been getting the swings and misses I had been searching for with that pitch, so I made a little adjustment with my grip. Tonight I felt like I had a lot more consistency with it and a lot more downward action."
The soon-to-be 30-year-old has been on a roll over his last six starts, with a 2.21 ERA and 50-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40.2 innings. And despite Scherzer’s trio of rough starts between May and June, he still owns a 12-3 record to go along with a 3.37 ERA and 161-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 139 innings.
Yet it’s Scherzer’s track record of success against the Angels’ big hitters that could make him an absolute force in a postseason matchup.
Regarding Trout, Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com (via Twitter) notes that only Felix Hernandez (11 strikeouts in 47 at-bats) and Yu Darvish (11 strikeouts in 34 at-bats) have struck him out more times than Scherzer:
Trout has struck out nine times in 15 ABs vs. Scherzer. Only Felix (11 Ks in 47 ABs) & Darvish (11 in 34) have struck him out more times.— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) July 25, 2014
The win was Scherzer’s 12th of the season and moved him into tie for first place in the AL with teammate Rick Porcello. However, that might not have been the case if not for Detroit’s late offensive rally and solid relief.
The Tigers responded to the Angels' three-run fifth inning by scoring three runs before making an out in the sixth. Torii Hunter plated the team’s second run of the game with a double to left field, and Nick Castellanos subsequently gave them a 4-3 lead with a two-run double.
The Tigers scored insurance runs in the next two frames, courtesy of an Ian Kinsler RBI double in the seventh and two-out RBI single by Austin Jackson in the eighth.
Overall, eight of Detroit’s starters collected a hit in the game while four different players plated a run. Amazingly, none of those four players had the last name Cabrera or Martinez (applicable for both Victor and J.D.), which speaks to the top-to-bottom potency of the Tigers offense.
This brings us to the Tigers bullpen, their one glaring weakness during the first half of the season.
Joe Nathan, 39, has saved 21 games so far and has 42 strikeouts in 37.2 innings, but it’s otherwise been a disappointing season for the veteran closer, as he’s also blown five saves and pitched to a 5.73 ERA and 1.49 WHIP. Meanwhile, many of the team’s other core relievers, specifically Ian Krol (4.55 ERA), Phil Coke (4.79 ERA) and Evan Reed (4.88 ERA), haven’t fared much better.
The lone bright spot has been Joba Chamberlain, who’s enjoying a resurgent season as the Tigers’ setup man with a 2.55 ERA and 22 holds over 46 appearances.
However, help is on the way.
The acquisition of Joakim Soria from the Rangers on Wednesday night gives Detroit’s bullpen much-needed depth and stability moving forward. Plus, the right-hander’s track record as closer makes him an option to assume ninth-inning duties should Nathan continue to struggle during the second half.
Soria was warming up in the bullpen during Thursday’s game and appeared ready to come in during the eighth, but Chamberlain managed to induce an inning-ending double play. Nathan then locked down the save in the ninth by striking out the side for just the second time this season, per Jason Beck of MLB.com (via Twitter).
Fox Sports Detroit analyst Craig Monroe discussed Nathan and the bullpen's performance after the game (via Fox Sports Detroit):
"I thought the ball was coming out of Joe Nathan's hand extremely well (Thursday)," Monroe said. "It looked like he had a little bit more get-up on that fastball, had some real good late bite. He was dominant. This is what the Tigers thought they were getting when they signed Joe Nathan. He's just had an up-and-down season.
"If he can continue to look like he did tonight, you add Soria in there, with Joba Chamberlain, the bullpen is starting to shape up."
The Tigers' win over the Angels on Thursday night is exactly why they’re poised for success in a five- or seven-game playoff series. No one player had a particularly great game, but the team fired on all cylinders and edged out a close game against a good team and pitcher.
A lot can still happen before October, obviously, but right now, the Tigers have the makings of a championship-caliber team.