Detroit — Max Scherzer described the events as surreal. But that was only after he’d had an hour or so to piece together his story.
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday night’s climactic eighth inning at Comerica Park, as the Tigers used the ace up their sleeve to thrill a full house, Scherzer was a bit too pumped up to process much of anything.
He’d just come charging off the mound with a double-barrel fist pump after working out of a no-outs, bases-loaded jam, with the Tigers clinging to a 5-4 lead in a must-win Game 4 of the American League Divisional Series. And he’d nearly torn the $200-million right arm off of Justin Verlander, among others, when his teammates greeted him at the top of the dugout steps.
“That’s why I give him that nickname ‘Mad Max’ — sometimes he has that different level he goes to,” catcher Alex Avila said. “But that kind of emotion? The occasion called for it.”
After what he’d just done? Of course.
But what was it he’d done, exactly?
“Asking him afterward, he was kind of in a daze and doesn’t really remember it,” laughed Doug Fister, the Game 4 starter who’d lasted six innings and left with the score tied, 3-3, right before the real fireworks show began. “I think that’s just pure adrenaline.”
That’s what it was, all right: Pure adrenaline. That’s what the Tigers needed Tuesday night, and that’s what they found when they needed it most, jolting to life and then rallying in the late innings with some heart-stopping drama.
Not the least of which was Scherzer’s improbable Houdini act, called on in relief on three days’ rest and then earning the win with two of the wildest innings — literally, at times — we’ve seen here in Detroit in quite some time.
“We overuse adjectives like incredible, awesome and big-time, so they lose meaning,” Avila said. “But what Max did was all of that and then some.”
What he did first, though, was play a game of catch Tuesday afternoon. Just to see if his arm felt good enough to pitch out of the bullpen.
It did, he said, “So I told (manager Jim Leyland), ‘I’ve got a couple of innings in me if you want it.’ ”
Want it? Actually, Leyland knew he’d need it, given the dire straits and his bullpen’s limitations. And sure enough, he did, with Fister needing 50 pitches to get through the first two innings before settling in and giving his team — and Scherzer — a chance.
“I was ready,” Scherzer said, though the hardest part, admittedly, was pacing around the bullpen as the shadows lengthened and the lights came on.
By the time he came in, he was probably a bit too ready. He gave up a lead-off single in the seventh, then another to Coco Crisp that put the A’s ahead, 4-3.
“I was wild tonight,” Scherzer admitted. “I didn't have my best command.”
Clearly, he didn’t. In the eighth, after the Tigers had taken their first lead on Victor Martinez’s disputed home run and Austin Jackson’s broken-bat single, he quickly found more trouble.
Scherzer walked the first batter he faced, Brandon Moss, on five pitches, missing repeatedly with his fastball. Yoenis Cespedes followed with a sharp liner to right field that Torii Hunter misplayed — it was generously scored a double — putting runners at second and third. And that forced Leyland’s hand, as he gave Seth Smith an intentional pass to load the bases with no outs.
“I hated to load him up, but Smith has been so hot and Max is a strikeout guy,” Leyland said, “so you take your shot.”
That’s all Scherzer wanted, really.
“This is the stuff you dream of,” Scherzer said. “Maybe it's not the ninth inning, but that's the stuff you dream about. Bases loaded, no outs … and I was able to do it.”
Josh Reddick was up first, and he didn’t go quietly, fouling off a 3-2 fastball. Avila called for another, but Scherzer shook him off. He wanted to throw his change-up, so he did. Only it didn’t go where he’d intended it to.
“I bounced it on the wrong side of the plate — I pulled it,” he said.
But Reddick swung — and missed — anyway.
“That was a huge out,” said Scherzer, who then struck out Stephen Vogt as the sellout crowd of 43,958 worked itself into a frenzy.
The next one was even bigger, though, as pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo worked another full count. He’d fouled off a pair of 96-mph fastballs early in the count, but Scherzer went after him with another — “I had to challenge him with my best pitch,” he said — and the crack of the bat made it sound like he’d made a crushing mistake.
“Off the bat, it looked like a hit,” Avila said.
“I thought it was down,” Scherzer agreed. “But Austin made a great play.”
Jackson did, though he gave some of the credit to his coaches. He’d looked to Tom Brookens for a positioning signal “at the last second” and “he told me to shade him in the gap, opposite side.” The thinking was the switch-hitting Callaspo, batting from the left side, would take a fastball away to left field if he got good wood on it, which he did.
“It worked out perfectly,” Jackson said.
For Scherzer. For the Tigers. For their fans. For everybody but the A’s, who had champagne ready but instead headed home wondering. And maybe worrying, just a bit, with Justin Verlander, who blanked them in a winner-take-all Game 5 in Oakland a year ago, ready to take the ball on his regular rest Thursday night.
This wasn’t the way they drew it up, obviously.
“But it made for a great story, didn’t it?” Verlander said, grinning. “That was intense.”
And the best part? It’s not over yet.