May 6, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Terry Foster

Tigers' Max Scherzer, Alex Avila thrive on in-your-face relationship

Detroit — Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer is not perfect, even though it looks that way on the mound. During those times of imperfection his catcher Alex Avila has permission to get in his face and launch a few choice words.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Scherzer said with a chuckle. “I encourage it.”

Sometimes things get heated when you are trying to make sure baseball’s best pitching staff stays that way. The key is that no egos are bruised or severed. Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Anibal Sanchez, Drew Smyly and Scherzer are talented.

However, they are the best in baseball for now because they know how to handle criticism and work a game plan.

They are veterans for the most part and they prepare for each game like they are surgeons prepping a patient. Pitching coach Jeff Jones, Avila and the starter that day meet before each game to strategize and make adjustments.

The result is the Tiger starters are 13-6 with a 2.73 earned run average and 1.12 WHIP. Opponents are batting just .222 against them. Although Atlanta has slightly better stats, they play in the National League, where pitchers bat.

Those numbers are better than a year ago when the Tiger starters were 76-44 with a 3.44 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.

Moving ahead on the mound

The Tigers are really on a roll. During a six-game winning streak heading into Tuesday night’s game against Houston at Comerica Park, Tigers starters have a 1.74 ERA and a WHIP of 0.85. They have only given up one home run in the last 42 innings.

This town is still angry over the trade that sent starting pitcher Doug Fister out of town. Meanwhile, Fister has yet to pitch, and the Tigers’ starting pitching is ahead of last year’s pace.

Let me throw in a disclaimer: The season is still young and weird things can happen. For instance, Sanchez (blister) will miss at least his next two starts and is being replaced by Robbie Ray from Toledo.

But so far so good.

Tailor-made catching

The man with the best view of this is Avila, who catches most of the time. He has been criticized the past couple of seasons because of his bat. However, the Tigers keep preaching how important his command of the pitchers is.

He treats everybody differently. The relationship with Scherzer is more of the man-cave mentality. Verlander wants to be left alone before games and is more of a calm focus on the mound.

“Max likes you to get in his face a little bit,” Avila said. “Justin is more intense but a more relaxed intensity and a more matter-of-fact. On the day of his start you can tell in his face that nobody should talk to him.”

The key is trust. Avila has been here for most of six seasons and knows his pitchers well.

“Every guy is different, and it is my job to know how to help them prepare for a game,” he said. “We have to be able to execute a game plan and at the same time make adjustments quickly.”

The dynamic with Scherzer is more interesting because Avila has permission to get mouthy.

“At times he does it, and it makes my job easier,” Scherzer said. “I know he wants me to pitch my best, and if it takes him getting in my face, then let’s do it. We are here to win and we do what it takes.”

Sometimes it takes fire to make something perfect. The Tiger starters keep bringing the heat, which makes this team a World Series contender.

Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, left, and Alex Avila talk things out during Monday's game against the Astros at Comerica Park. The Tigers won, 2-0. / Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News
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