Justin Verlander, left, will take his best shot at the Red Sox at Fenway in Game 7 if Max Scherzer, right, can beat them in Game 6. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Boston — It looks dire, sure. One slugger is ailing, the other is flailing. The Tigers are back in frightful Fenway Park with their season in peril, down 3-2, and that would be enough to shake any team.
Shaken? Yes. But also stirred? In the immediate aftermath of their 4-3 loss to the Red Sox in Game 5, amid the talk of basepath gaffes and ill-timed swings, the Tigers clung to the stirring specter of Scherlander. That’s Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, who have taken turns being dominant and are up next. To have any chance at a second chance, it starts with Scherzer today, and while the Tigers don’t like their deficit, they have to like the matchups.
This isn’t just the old axiom that pitching wins in the playoffs. Actually, the Tigers have squandered Scherlander’s two outings this series. This is about who has the most left to give, who is accustomed to the heat, and who craves the moment.
Let’s be honest here. Miguel Cabrera may crave the moment, but he doesn’t have a lot left to give. His groin and abdominal injuries have robbed him of leg strength, power and mobility, which led to that fateful out at home plate in Game 5.
Prince Fielder should have plenty left to give, but we haven’t seen it. He doesn’t have a home run or an RBI this postseason and was booed after two groundouts in Game 5. In the short term, his reputation in Detroit is under fire. That’s what the playoff glare does, and Fielder has to handle it better.
The glare can singe, and also illuminate. Scherzer has been fully illuminated all season, a smart, competitive tactician who went 21-3 and will win the Cy Young. In Game 2 against the Red Sox, he pitched seven innings of two-hit ball and struck out 13. The Red Sox famously won on David Ortiz’s grand slam off Joaquin Benoit, but they didn’t solve Scherzer, and they didn’t solve Verlander the next game.
Knowing his limits
The second outing against the same team is when it really gets tough, and Scherzer knows he’ll have to mix things up to be effective. Few players mix it up as well as the Tigers’ top pitchers, capable of turning dire into dramatic.
“I’d take my chances with those guys,” Torii Hunter said of Scherlander. “If I had to go in some back alley, I’d take those guys with me.”
The Tigers aren’t winning many street-fight slugfests, not with their lineup these days. So they’ll try to win in a more-familiar way. In his last outing, Scherzer was pulled by Jim Leyland after 108 pitches with the Tigers leading 5-1, and it seemed to be a prudent move. Scherzer also said he was spent, and there wasn’t much disagreement from Leyland.
That was an early game in a long series, with the Tigers holding a sizable lead. Tonight against Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz, I imagine limits will be pushed. Scherzer is an introspective guy who knows his arm better than anyone, and he knows he’ll have to adjust against the Red Sox hitters.
“They’re gonna break down the film and look at my patterns and try to figure me out,” Scherzer said. “So I gotta be ahead of the curve and do something different. … You know how your arm feels when you reach 80, 90, 100, 110 pitches. But when you have a win-or-go-home type game, you’re going to pitch as long as you can. I have to be smart enough to know when that limit is.”
Pressure can swallow a player whole this time of year, and so can ailments. Catcher Alex Avila twisted his left knee in a home-plate collision and left the game, but hopes to be ready today. Cabrera is accepting no offers of sympathy for his injuries, saying simply, “No time to feel sorry about how you’re feeling.”
Outside the law
Would the offense be more productive if Cabrera wasn’t hobbled? Probably. It’s a major reason the two highest-scoring teams in baseball have sparred in low-scoring duels, and it certainly has contributed to the Tigers’ three one-run losses.
If it’s tight again this weekend, it wouldn’t surprise anyone, certainly not Scherzer.
“You have two of the best teams going at it, there is no edge,” Scherzer said. “Sometimes when you have two pitchers and it’s supposed to be this magnificent pitching duel, it’s a high-scoring game. And then you have two high-scoring offenses and it’s a pitching matchup. Baseball is the most incredible game. It’ll always be the opposite, kind of like Murphy’s Law.”
I’m not sure Murphy’s Law — what can go wrong, will — applies here. Or maybe it does, because the Tigers have pitched well enough to lead the series, if not for some staggering breakdowns.
They have no room for error and no time for Murphy’s or any other laws. It ends here or it starts here, and they think they have the guys who can handle it.
“I don’t get caught up in the hoopla of having extra pressure on the line,” Scherzer said. “I choose to ignore it. I’m not gonna be fazed by the magnitude of the situation.”
He said that after Game 2, before the magnitude grew. Now it’s here, heavier than ever. From dire to dangerous to potentially dominant, it’s the last-gasp path for the Tigers, and they’ll take their chances with it.