August 29, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers' Max Scherzer puts 20-win plateau in context

Detroit — I caught him as he was dressing for pregame practice Wednesday, a few hours before the A’s and Tigers tangled in a bid to see if Detroit might want to win a game after losing the first two sets of its four-game pairing at Comerica Park.

Max Scherzer was changing into a blue long-sleeve Tigers shirt, which was a rough sartorial match for the workout shorts he was wearing. He was busy as he sat on a chair in front of his locker within the clubhouse, but not too busy to talk about history, which is what Scherzer could make today if he beats the A’s.

Scherzer could win his 20th game this season. If that were to happen, the Tigers right-hander, who at the moment is the team’s unofficial staff ace, would become the first big-league pitcher this season to nail 20 victories.

Scherzer looked up from his locker stool. He could acknowledge “20” carried weight. But it had to be in context, he said. It was a subject that came with strings attached.

“Because of the history of the game, I respect that,” said Scherzer, who a month ago turned 29 and whose record since the start of 2012 is a dizzying 35-8. “But I don’t look at tomorrow as different from any other start.”

We get that. Absolutely, we do. In fact, we’ll put ourselves on the same clubhouse chair and tell you why we get it.

The Tigers are in a team business. Team members subordinate themselves to team goals. It’s a basic sports ethic, of course, although you could say it is heightened this season because the Tigers are expected to win their division and hang around during October’s playoffs.

In good company

Any sidetracked focus on numbers — whether it is Miguel Cabrera chasing another Triple Crown or Scherzer winning 20 — would be out of place and not consistent with the all-for-one, one-for-all creed sports supposedly adopted during an ancient pre-ESPN era.

You can still get away with these personal numbers conversations as long as you’re talking about something hallowed — like history.

If he prevails today, Scherzer would join Justin Verlander (24-5 in 2011) as the second 20-game winner for the Tigers since 1991 (Bill Gullickson). He would become the eighth Tigers pitcher since 1966 to win 20 games.

He would join Denny McLain (three times), as well as Jack Morris and Joe Coleman (twice), and Mickey Lolich, Earl Wilson, Gullickson and Verlander, all of whom pitched for Detroit during the past 50 years and reached the gold standard of 20.

It’s special. Scherzer, who verbally is one of the straightest marksmen in manager Jim Leyland’s clubhouse, had to concede as much.

“To me, it would be the sign of having competed at a high level, and I’m capable of pitching at a high level,” he said of 20 victories and its significance.

But, ah, the team. Always the team. Scherzer can’t win 20 games unless his sidekicks working in the field and swinging bats are cooperating. Conversely, his cohorts can hit and field in sterling ways that will mean zero if their guy on the mound isn’t in command.

He let fly with one of those knowing grins that are a Scherzer trademark.

“That’s why it’s been such a great run,” he said. “We’ve been in great synch. They get bit hits. They make great plays behind me. Some games I’ve not been as sharp, but they’ve gotten extra runs.”

Finding his groove

For his part, Scherzer has discarded hitters as if they were cans to be recycled.

He found his groove, he said, following a game April 29, 2012, after he walked seven Yankees batters and struck out four in a 6-2 loss at Yankee Stadium.

After that forgettable Sunday, he became, well, Scherzer. He has gone 34-5. His ratio of strikeouts to walks has become more of a 5-to-1 mix.

You wonder what a man who becomes a free agent in 14 months might pull if his free agency arrived this autumn. Imagine what an agent named Scott Boras might demand for Scherzer’s signature as he prepares to finish off a two-season run that will leave him with, well, historic numbers.

Scherzer wasn’t worrying about timelines Wednesday. He is smart enough, and talented enough, to know that if his health holds up, the paydays will follow. They’ll look like a Wall Street executive’s yearly bonus.

“It’s hard to fathom next year,” he said, the Scherzer grin creeping across his face, “when you’ve got to finish this year.”

Max Scherzer on Thursday attempts to become the first Tigers 20-game winner since Justin Verlander, who did it just two seasons ago. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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