June 18, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers' Max Scherzer carves out own niche atop star-studded staff

Detroit — He’s not the most-renowned or the highest-paid. But on a team of pitching stars, it’s Max Scherzer’s turn to star.

The Tigers are pretty darn good at collecting gaudy individual feats, and now here comes Scherzer, hanging 10s all over the place. He’s 10-0 after another 10-striekout performance to open a 10-game homestand. And the Tigers’ 5-1 pasting of the Orioles Monday night finally lifted them to 10 games over .500.

If you can take a break from the Tigers’ other nagging issue (Day Five: Closer Crisis), you’ll notice Scherzer is doing things not many players have ever done. In fact, no one in baseball has started a season 10-0 since Roger Clemens in 1997, and Scherzer is on a strikeout streak not seen since the days of Pedro Martinez.

“Man, that tickles me when you say those type of names,” Scherzer said, shaking his head. “But I got blinders on. All the other extracurricular stuff falls in line when you pitch well.”

An All-Star appearance surely will fall in line, and he might even earn the starting nod. Jim Leyland will have some interesting choices as the All-Star manager, but he has plenty of other things on his mind right now.

'Passing out bouquets'

The day began with the Tigers putting Anibal Sanchez on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right shoulder, and for all the fretting about the bullpen, that’s the latest concern. But the Tigers have the best possible antidote to the closer problem (short of trading for, say, Jonathan Papelbon). They line up so many dominant starters, the issue could sort itself out over time. Jose Valverde may not be the answer, but when Scherzer and others pitch like this, Leyland doesn’t have to ask the question.

Drew Smyly finished off the heavy-hitting Orioles with three perfect innings, one day after Joaquin Benoit collected a save. The line between patience and panic is notoriously thin during a long season, but Leyland has a comfort few managers ever have.

“When I get in the car and I know Max Scherzer is pitching that night, and the same with Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello and Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez, I feel pretty good,” Leyland said. “You can get carried away with how good a rotation is, and I don’t want to be passing out bouquets. But it’s like sending Mariano Rivera out there in the ninth — you think you got a great chance.”

Earlier in the day, Leyland was talking about furniture, and how it isn’t quite arranged properly in the bullpen. He wasn’t sure who would close, if necessary, and called it “The Days of Our Lives.”

Those are fine analogies, and I’ll take it a step farther. The furniture might not be set up in the bullpen, but the rotation is an expensive five-piece sectional sofa. You feel good when you sit in it, and no one is feeling better than Scherzer these days.

The 28-year-old right-hander is becoming masterful, always eager to make adjustments to get better. Last year, he worked hard on his slider and went 16-7. This season, he added a curveball and has a 3.08 ERA, with these astonishing numbers: 116 strikeouts and 24 walks in 96.1 innings.

“My stuff is the best it’s ever been, and that’s a product of the curveball,” Scherzer said. “We (starters) don’t compete against each other, we’re all such different pitchers. But right now, as a staff, I think we’re the best in the game, one through five. We’re able to go out there, all of us, and attack hitters, pitch deep into games, generate swings and misses, and minimize walks.”

'He's simplified some things'

Scherzer might be the most-cerebral of the bunch, but he can turn quickly into Mad Max. He did it early and forcefully in this one, striking out the side to escape trouble in the fifth. He ended it by whiffing Chris Davis with the bases loaded on a 3-2 pitch that sizzled at 97 mph.

Scherzer hit double figures in strikeouts for the 15th time in his career, and joined Martinez as the only pitchers in AL history to strike out at least six in 14 consecutive outings to start a season. Yes, that statistic is a little geeky — thanks to the fine number-crunchers at Elias Sports Bureau — but there’s nothing geeky about 10-0. The only other Tiger to start a season like this was George Mullin in 1909, but I don’t think Ol’ George dialed up fastballs in the high-90s.

The strikeout is Scherzer’s signature, and the entire staff’s trademark.

“Max is a very bright guy in a lot of areas, and I think he’s fine-tuned it to where he’s not overloading the computer,” Leyland said. “I think he simplified some things.”

He’ll probably complicate things for Leyland and his All-Star decisions. Verlander started the All-Star game last year and famously got knocked around. The starters’ internal competition is completely healthy, pride pushing pride, pitchers pushing pitchers. Scherzer keeps rising, and the others surely don’t mind keeping up.



Tigers starter Max Scherzer was plenty pumped up Monday night, when he beat the Orioles, 5-1, at Comerica Park to improve to 10-0 on the season. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News
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