Detroit — In some ways, it wasn’t different at all. Max Scherzer pitched well, the crowd roared and the Tigers won. It’s a formula that doesn’t have to change, not right now.
“What’s different?” Scherzer said. “I’m out there to get guys out. I think they like it when I get guys out. So I think they’re gonna cheer when I get guys out.”
Scherzer got another batch of guys out Wednesday, just as he did while winning the Cy Young last season. And the Tigers did it to the Royals again, pulling out a 2-1 victory on Ian Kinsler’s 10th-inning single.
No one wants to frame this as a long good bye, and they shouldn’t. Ten days ago, Scherzer turned down the Tigers’ six-year, $144-million offer and both sides declared negotiations over, for now. He’ll be a free-agent after the season, and if he comes close to his 21-3 mark, he’ll sign with someone — maybe even the Tigers — for more than $144 million. If he doesn’t, well, that’s the risk he took, which is at least equal to the Tigers’ risk in losing him.
It’s too bad the deal didn’t get done, but you know what I like? I like that Scherzer is betting on Scherzer. And I like that if he wins the gamble, the Tigers win too, because they need him to be dominant to have a shot at the World Series.
He didn’t get the win Wednesday because Joe Nathan blew the save, but he pitched eight shutout innings and was stellar again. There were no signs of discord from the Comerica Park crowd, not that anyone really expected it. It was supportive and lively, and it helped that Scherzer shook off a shaky first inning and shut the Royals down.
Fans cheer their own, right up until their own leaves. This is business, and Scherzer, 29, has deftly dodged any acrimony, even when GM Dave Dombrowski announced the Tigers’ “substantial” offer had been “rejected,” a peculiar act of posturing.
But the Tigers made their offer and their point, and now it’s up to Scherzer to make his. Before he gets to the big decision that he understandably doesn’t want to talk about, he’ll face a whole bunch of smaller decisions. Like, for instance, what to say to manager Brad Ausmus when the game is on the line.
'This is my ball'
The Tigers were clinging to a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning when Salvador Perez led off with a double. The bullpen was warming up and the rookie manager was watching closely. Scherzer struck out Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, and was sitting at 107 pitches, with No. 9 hitter Alcides Escobar coming up.
Ausmus went to the mound and made a simple plea.
“The first time I ever met Max, we had lunch, and he told me he’d always be honest with how he was feeling,” Ausmus said. “So I asked him how he felt, and reminded him he was gonna be honest. He gave me a response that I liked, that he wanted to stay in, and in a manner that made it seem like he wanted to stay in. So he really made the decision for me.”
That’s quick trust-building, and a window into both men’s minds. Ausmus is the new guy on a playoff team and wants to tread lightly at first. Scherzer is a star who made a bold decision and wants to back it up by showing stamina and a team-first mentality.
“I told him I was tired, because I was,” Scherzer said. “I needed to be honest with Brad, but I thought I had one more hitter in me. So I just took the mindset, I’m in the game, this is my ball, I’m gonna get this guy out.”
Two sliders and a fastball later, Escobar was out on a soft fly ball and the crowd cheered as Scherzer left the mound. We don’t need to debate the contract every time he pitches, but this was the first necessary step, and it began with a few missteps.
Scherzer was wild in the first inning, and with runners on first and third and one out, he went to a 3-0 count on Billy Butler. This was real early danger, and Scherzer suspected Butler would be swinging. So he fed him a fastball that Butler slapped to short for a double play.
After the inning, Scherzer stomped into the clubhouse, tore off his long-sleeved undershirt and replaced it with short sleeves, then punctuated his anger at himself by kicking a laundry bin.
“I wasn’t firing at 100 percent, mentality-wise,” Scherzer said. “I came in here and kicked a few things to get myself going. I needed to dial up my intensity and throw strike one. That’s my game plan, to come right at you, and that’s what I did.”
He quickly found control of his fastball and wicked control of his off-speed pitches, and it turned into a typical Scherzer show — four hits, one walk, seven strikeouts in eight innings.
'I'm better than I was'
Naturally, people will dissect numbers and question the wisdom of turning down an offer that reportedly would’ve made him one of the six highest-paid pitchers in baseball. Before his breakout campaign, he’d never gone 200 innings or posted an ERA lower than 3.50, and there’s always the unspoken risk of injury. Scherzer is smart and self-assured, and along with his agent, Scott Boras, surely knows what he’s getting into.
I asked if this was the best first start he’d ever had, and he thought about it.
“I’m looking to get better every single year, and I feel I’m better than I was last year with all my pitches,” he said.
“So to answer your question, yes.”
There will be extra scrutiny and careful wording all season, as Scherzer and the Tigers and the fans navigate complicated feelings. That part will be different for a while. But as Scherzer is eager to show, everything else could be very much the same.