On Thursday afternoon, Max Scherzer came to the Detroit Tigers' rescue. In arguably his best start of what has been yet another fantastic season, Scherzer fired eight scoreless innings with a season-high 14 strikeouts over a season-high 121 pitches to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 5-2. In doing so, Scherzer, a free agent at season's end, showed the Tigers just how much they need him—both now and in the future.
Scherzer's big outing made him the first 14-game winner in the American League and came when Detroit (65-54) needed it most, considering the club has gone just 12-16 since the All-Star break to fall out of first place behind the Kansas City Royals (66-54) in the AL Central.
"He pitched like a Cy Young Award winner," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, via Marty Slovin of MLB.com. "He's a horse out there. The volume of pitches he can throw and maintain velocity and command is impressive."
Here are the well-worth-watching highlights of Scherzer's dominance, which started from the very first batter as he struck out each of the first four Pirates, six of the first seven and eight of the first 10, per Jason Beck of MLB.com:
Not only are the Tigers struggling, they're also ailing, particularly the pitching staff, even in the wake of the blockbuster trade-deadline deal for left-hander David Price. Starters Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez are dealing with shoulder inflammation and a strained pectoral muscle, respectively.
While Verlander is only expected to miss a start or two, the former MVP has been the least reliable member of the five-man rotation all year with an ERA of 4.76 and WHIP of 1.42. Sanchez, who has a 3.53 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, is likely to be out into September, according to James Schmehl of MLive.com.
Then there's reliever Joakim Soria, a July trade acquisition to help solidify a shaky bullpen that has one of the five worst ERAs (4.39) in baseball. The former Texas Ranger hasn't been great since joining Detroit (10 H, 5 ER in 4.1 IP), and now he's on the disabled list with an oblique injury.
While the offense has slumped, it still remains one of the best in baseball, thanks to two-time defending MVP Miguel Cabrera and his top designated hitter sidekick Victor Martinez. That duo is backed up by a number of quality bats, from proven veterans Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter to youngsters figuring things out like rookie Nick Castellanos and scrap-heap find J.D. Martinez, who combined to go 4-for-7 with four RBI on Thursday.
But it's fair to wonder if Cabrera, now 31, is capable of carrying a team through the marathon 162-game season. His production fell off a cliff down the stretch in 2013 as he played through injuries. Although he had surgery in the offseason, his power numbers have dropped for a third straight month to season lows through the first half of August.
|Miguel Cabrera's Monthly SLG and OPS|
All of that puts what Scherzer did Thursday into better perspective, as he does his best to drag his team across the finish line—a team he might not be with in a few months.
Scherzer, after all, declined the Tigers' $144 million extension offer last winter, choosing instead to gamble on his talents this year and reach a bigger payday in free agency. So far, so good.
In case you haven't noticed, the 30-year-old right-hander is having a season remarkably similar to his Cy Young-winning 2013:
|How Max Scherzer's 2014 Compares to His Cy Young 2013|
And Scherzer has been better more recently, too, which is huge both for the Tigers and his own quest to drive up his market value heading into what's sure to be a bidding war this offseason.
After a 10-hit, 10-run, 4.0-inning blowup against the Royals on June 17 raised Scherzer's ERA to a season-worst 3.84, here are his numbers over his 10 starts since: 6-1, 1.78 ERA, 0.98 WHIP with a 85-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70.2 innings.
Turns out, the Tigers needed Scherzer to pitch them to a second straight victory on Thursday. That helped Detroit keep pace with Kansas City, as the Royals beat the Oakland Athletics, 7-3, to take three of four from baseball's best team in their seventh consecutive series win.
With Detroit still a half-game game behind the Royals in the division, this is shaping up to be a serious race over the final six weeks. And if the Tigers are going to push toward their fourth AL Central crown in a row, Scherzer is both healthy and pitching like the arm to lead them there, unlike some of the club's other starters.
If that happens, Scherzer is going to prove how valuable, how irreplaceable he is to Detroit. And soon after, the free-agent-to-be will step out onto the open market, and the Tigers might find out how valuable, how irreplaceable he really is if he winds up somewhere else.
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