Toronto — Max Scherzer and his buddies were one inning away from the Tigers winning a second consecutive game. They were three outs from Scherzer owning more victories than any American League pitcher. They were three outs from Scherzer being able to tack a Saturday classic onto his expansive list of masterpieces: eight innings, three hits, one run, 11 strikeouts, no walks.
But the Tigers so often in 2014 have been defined, or destroyed, by their bullpen. Saturday at Rogers Centre, a pair of relievers crumbled, leaving Tigers manager Brad Ausmus to explain after a brutal 3-2 loss to the Jays why Scherzer had been excused after having thrown 106 pitches.
With the Tigers holding onto a 2-1 lead, the Blue Jays tied the game at 2 in the ninth against Joe Nathan and won it in the 10th when Joba Chamberlain, a fast fill-in when Joakim Soria strained a muscle in his side, was popped for a leadoff single and a long, winning double by Nolan Reimold.
“He emptied the tank,” Ausmus said of Scherzer, who blew away the last two Blue Jays hitters in the eighth on six pitches, capped each time by a 97-mph fastball. “There are a couple of guys on the staff who you can tell have emptied the tank.”
Another reason Ausmus had no problem excusing Scherzer on Saturday: His bullpen fireman, Nathan, was ready, even after a long, tense stint in the ninth inning of Friday night’s classic at Rogers Centre. Nathan loaded the bases but got the save in a game the Tigers won, 5-4, thanks to a three-run, ninth-inning surge that came by way of back-to-back homers from Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez.
On Saturday, a pair of singles and a stolen base sandwiched around an intentional walk allowed Toronto’s tying run. Then, with one out, the bases again loaded, and the winning run waiting to score, Nathan finally had to be relieved by Soria, who got the next two batters to send the game into extras.
“Joe’s our closer,” Ausmus said in the visiting manager’s office Saturday as questions spilled from media members about his decision to pull Scherzer.
Ausmus defended Nathan, who, after a wobbly spring, had been pitching reasonably well.
“He’d saved nine of his last 10,” Ausmus said. “That’s not awful. He’s done an excellent job.”
Scherzer agreed and insisted, persuasively, he was comfortable with Ausmus’ decision.
“You’ve got to be very careful,” said Scherzer, whose performance was a marvelous mix of power, efficiency, and Scherzer’s four-pitch arsenal. “We’re on multiple five-day rotation turns (no off-days). You’ve got to be very aware of those schedules.
“You tax a pitcher’s arm now and it’s only going to get worse. I was done. There’s nothing else to it. We’re not going to sit here and second-guess the manager. I was done.”
Scherzer said he knew the eighth likely would be his last inning and saved his best fastballs, twin 97-mph heaters to Danny Valencia and Reimold, for his grand finale.
“I was very confident,” said Ausmus, “the eighth inning was going to be his last inning. He’s very honest with me and Jeff Jones (pitching coach). Jeff checked on him prior to the eighth and he was fine.”
He was not fine, in Ausmus’ view, to tackle the ninth, even if Scherzer in his Tigers past has hit or exceeded 125 pitches.
The Tigers, though, might have made all the bullpen analysis and second-guesses academic if they had scraped together more than four hits and two runs, with both runs arriving in the sixth on Victor Martinez’s two-run double into the left-field corner against talented Jays rookie Marcus Stroman.
Stroman lasted nine innings, at which point Toronto came to bat ready to wreck the Tigers and their 2-1 lead.
In his rescue of Nathan, Soria was particularly sharp, which made his exit in the 10th doubly aggravating for the Tigers. When he replaced Nathan, with the bases jammed and most of a sellout crowd (45,927) screaming for Detroit’s blood, Soria quickly got Juan Francisco on a pop-up to short. He put away Munenori Kawasaki on a groundout to first to save the tie and send the game to the 10th — and, ultimately, to the victory column for Toronto.
Nathan appreciated Soria’s work. And was left to analyze, again, what had gone wrong.
“I just got myself into a position where I had to be fine (overly accurate),” said Nathan, who had thrown 26 pitches Friday, and who was at 28 when he got the hook Saturday.
Dioner Navarro’s ground single to right, which might have ended the game, was viewed by Ausmus, Nathan, and most of the Tigers cast as Saturday’s death knell. But neither was Nathan throwing pitches that much resembled his old repertoire, when 94-mph fastballs and sadistic sliders made for a steady stream of 1-2-3 innings.
“No excuse,” Nathan said. “Yesterday (Friday) I threw a lot of pitches and today I threw a lot of pitches. You feel a little fatigue. But we come to the park and do what we do and try to win a game.
“Unfortunately for Max, you’d like to get one for him. And, unfortunately, I fell short.”
Chamberlain had never before entered a game as a replacement for an injured pitcher, as he was obliged to do when Soria departed with his sore side at the start of the Blue Jays’ 10th.
He was allowed as much time as he wanted to get warm. But it was obvious from his first pitches to Valencia that he was not in typical Chamberlain rhythm.
“I’ve never done that before,” Chamberlain said. “It was totally different, way different. But whether I’m in rhythm or not, I’ve just got to go out and I’ve got to be better.
“I didn’t do my job,” he said. “He (Reimold) did his.”
Nathan, whose role isn’t likely to change, especially with Soria’s muscle strain a potential issue, said he and his clubhouse partners were ready for whatever happens.
“It’s not gonna get any easier,” Nathan said. “It’s August. And we’re in a pennant race.”