Detroit – Max Scherzer famously bet on himself last winter, turning down a seven-year, $144 million contract offer from the Tigers. From the sound of it, he believes he won the bet.
"I think I grew as a pitcher," he said. "Overall, during the regular season I've executed pitches I wasn't able to execute last year. I wasn't quite as consistent as I was last year, but I feel like I can pitch consistently. That's the most important thing going forward into the playoffs.
"But when I look back at 2014, I look at it as a great success."
Scherzer, a free agent in the offseason, pitched his final regular-season game Thursday — a 116-pitch, six-inning, two-run win over the Twins. He finishes the year with an 18-5 record and an ERA of 3.19. He posted a career-best 252 strikeouts and 2201/3 innings.
Afterward he was asked this question: If he knew last winter that those were going to be his numbers, would he take it? Would he be satisfied?
"Yeah," he said, "this is what I thought I could do. This is the belief I had in myself. I knew I was going to get better as a pitcher. I knew in spring training I was growing with all my pitches, especially with the curveball. I knew that pitch was coming along and I was able to execute it at a higher frequency."
He admits he was more consistent last season, but it would have been unrealistic to expect a repeat of that 21-3 Cy Young masterpiece.
"This year I've been more up and down, but the season as a whole, I pitched extremely well," he said. "I anticipated doing that. I set the bar high for myself and to be able to reach it is a gratifying feeling."
He's been up and down through the month of September, for sure, but he said he feels like he's on a good track heading into the postseason. He went seven innings and won two of his previous three starts, including a seven-hit, one-run outing against the Royals.
"These last couple of starts matter," he said. "Where I'm at right now, executing pitches, it matters. I need to fine tune a few things even more because every pitch in the playoffs is crucial, so huge. Whatever game I pitch, I have to be at my best. The minute you give these guys an inch, they hit it a mile."
Scherzer knows he can't fall behind hitters like he did against the Twins Thursday. He knows he can't walk four, which he's done twice now in his last four starts.
"I didn't pitch efficiently tonight and that's something I know I have to be better at going forward," he said. "I just didn't throw enough pitches in the zone early in the count. I fell behind too many hitters and when you do that, it leads to three-ball counts and 3-2 counts and anything can happen in a 3-2 count."
Still, he gutted out six innings. With his pitch count over 100 after he gave up two, two-out runs in the fifth and then a leadoff single to start the sixth, but he buckled down and got the next three hitters without much of a fuss.
"He's matured as a pitcher," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He has more confidence in himself and generally a lot more command of his pitches. He is able to make adjustments on the fly."
What he's most proud of, Scherzer said, is reaching a career best in innings pitched.
"That means a lot," he said. "It means I am taking the ball and going deep into games. I am doing what the team needs. That's gratifying because it reflects on what I can do for the team. When you talk about 220 innings, there's not a lot of guys that do that.
"To be one of those guys in this league means a lot to me."